One of the most stunning sights on the Korean peninsula, Paekdusan (Mount Paekdu) straddles the Chinese–Korean border in the very far northeastern tip of DPRK. Apart from it being the highest mountain in the country at 2744m, and an amazing geological phenomenon (it’s an extinct volcano now containing a vast crater lake at its centre), it is also of huge mythical importance to the Korean people.
Paekdusan is not included on most tours, as it involves chartering an internal flight to the city of Chongjin and then travelling into the mountains from there. However, if you have the time and money to include a visit on your trip, you will not be disappointed.
The natural beauty of the extinct volcano now containing one of the world’s deepest lakes is made all the more magical by the mythology that surrounds the lake, both ancient and modern. The legend runs that Hwanung, the Lord of Heaven, descended onto the mountain in 2333 BC, and from here formed the nation of Choson – ‘The Land of Morning Calm’, or ancient Korea. It therefore only seems right and proper that four millennia later Kim Jong Il was born here ‘and flying white horses were seen in the sky’ according to official sources. In fact, Kim Jong Il was probably born in Khabarovsk, Russia, where his father was in exile at the time, but the necessity of maintaining the Kim myth supersedes such niggling facts.
Much like Myohyangsan, an area of spectacular natural beauty is further enhanced by revolutionary ‘sights’ such as Jong Il peak and the Secret Camp from where Kim Il Sung supposedly directed some of the key battles during the anti-Japanese campaigns of WWII, despite the fact that no historians outside DPRK have ever claimed that the area was a battle scene.
North Korea’s current history books also claim that he established his guerrilla headquarters at Paekdusan in the 1920s, from where he defeated the Japanese. To prove this, you’ll be shown declarations that the Great Leader and his comrades carved on the trees. More and more of these ‘slogan-bearing trees’ are being discovered every year, some so well preserved you’d think they were carved yesterday. The North Korean book Kim Jong Il in His Young Days describes the Dear Leader’s difficult childhood during those days of ceaseless warfare at Paekdusan:
His childhood was replete with ordeals. The secret camp of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in the primeval forest was his home, and ammunition belts and magazines were his playthings. The raging blizzards and ceaseless gunshots were the first sounds to which he became accustomed. Day in and day out fierce battles went on and, during the breaks, there were military and political trainings. On the battlefield, there was no quilt to warmly wrap the new-born child. So women guerrillas gallantly tore cotton out of their own uniforms and each contributed pieces of cloth to make a patchwork quilt for the infant.
Visitors here will be shown the secret camp beneath Jong Il Peak, said to be the Dear Leader’s birthplace, which features a log cabin, and plenty of monuments commemorating patriotic fighters and glorious battles. But the real reason to come here is the glories of nature: vast tracts of virgin forest, abundant wildlife, lonely granite crags, fresh springs, gushing streams and dramatic waterfalls – and, for those able to make the steep and treacherous climb, the astounding Jong Il peak, where heaven indeed seems close and the mundane world is so very far away. Few foreign travellers make it here at all, due to the formidable costs involved, and that is unlikely to change until a highway or train line is built.