Korean Language Blog

Baekdu Mountain: the Pride of Korea, both North and South Posted by on May 7, 2016 in Culture, Uncategorized

Roughly 70% of South Korea is mountainous land. But for South Koreans, it’s most prized and cherished mountain lies on the border between North Korea and China. It’s a volcanic mountain, capped at it’s peak with a crater lake know as “heaven lake” (천지), named Baekdu Mountain (백두산), the sacred white-headed mountain.

The common ties for both North and South, and perhaps even for the Chinese who claim it as Changbai Mountain, is based around a Noah-like mythology. One of three known Korean flood myths refers to Baekdu-san and a character named Namu Doryeong (나무도령). A son of a laurel tree spirit, or essentially the spirit of a bush, Namu Doryeong survived a great flood by floating on top of the laurel. In a much more ad hoc manner than Noah, they rescued animals from the bottom of the food chain up: ants, then mosquitoes, and then slowly all the living species in the world. Against the advice of the shrub, they rescued a young boy.

Once the flood was over Namu Doryeong met an elderly, wise woman and her two daughters, one maternal and one foster daughter. (You can probably see where this is going.) The reason the wise woman and the daughters didn’t die was because they sought refuge on Korea’s highest mountain, Baeduk-san. The boy, seeing that he was with a spirit and looking to impress the only women left on Earth, told the elderly woman that Namu could gather cereal grains on the ground quickly. (Supposedly because they had nothing else to eat and they couldn’t eat the living things that they saved.)

The elderly women offered the lonely boys a contest: deliver on your boasting and the two of you can marry my daughters. Namu came nowhere close to doing what the boy said he could do. So the ants, the original species saved, came to boys’ rescue. The elderly woman, discovering that the ants had aided him, couldn’t decide which daughter offer to Namu and which daughter to the other boy. So, she decided to put the daughters in separate rooms in the pitch black darkness, and let fate decide.

However, the mosquitoes aided Namu to find the woman’s daughter, and the second boy went for the foster daughter. From here, the two couples were wed and that was the re-birth of the human race.*

(To understand this better, more about this Korean flood myth can be seen here, in this wonderful and amusing Prezi.)

Baekdu-san (commonly mis-transliterated as Paektu) is one of the few places where North Koreans collaborate (semi-secretly) with South Korean and international scientists. Baekdu-san, a 2,744 m (9,003 ft) semi-active volcano, last erupted in 1903. But it was the 946CE, knows as the Millennium Eruption, when Goryo historians and scholars in the then capital Kaesong referred to it as “thunders from the heaven drum” that made it, what scientists call now, a sleeping dragon. The 946 eruption is considered to be one of the most enormous volcanic eruptions of the last 5,000 years. The eruption was said to have the power of 100 million Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs, spewing roughly 100 cubic kilometers of lava and ash at supersonic speed.

(The nuclear comparisons don’t end there. Since then, there have been small eruptions of gas, including last month and in 2011, when some suspected a North Korean underground nuclear test as a catalyst.)

With tensions on the peninsula reaching an all-time high, an impending massive eruption on Baekdu-san could have a spiritual and coincidental meaning for Koreans. It could also have damaging geological consequences, with an eruption being, possibly, 10 to 100 times worse than Iceland’s volcanic eruption in 2010. 

However, it goes without saying that the Baekdu-san myth, which is about reviving the human race, crosses the political lines of North and South Korea. Personally, one of my lasting memories of living in Korea was the all-around passion, from all generations, for Baekdu-san, a place which, as one can imagine, has become difficult to visit safely, both politically and now geologically. As a testament to its importance and long-standing lesson, when I was a teacher in South Korea, nearly every elementary to high school principal I met had a painting or photo of Baekdu-san in their office.

For a hilarious (and very “Korean”) trip to Baekdu, please see the video below.

*Op Ed: From a cultural anthropology perspective, the story of Baekdu-san is one of the strongest forms of Korean creation mythology, and therefore a central characteristic of Korean identity and pride. And, possibly, this might be a source, from a social anthropological perspective, of Korea’s strong homogeneous thinking.

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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.