North & South Korea: Why the Baekdu Daegan should be a National Trail

When I was in Pyongyang in June (2017) this year, I was fortunate to have a meeting with some geography professors from Kim IL Sung university. The discussion was on the Baekdu Daegan, or as they call it, the Paektu Dae San Julgi.

The points of discussion were the geographical presence of the Baekdu Daegan, the Japanese interference of it, how it was remapped after the Korean War, and its importance as a symbol of nationalism. The Japanese, incorrectly mapped the Baekdu Daegan as being broken at two highland plateaus, Saepo and Cholong-san. I’ve been to both those places. Some theorists believe the Japanese were trying to break the flow of Pungsu-jiri (geomancy), and therefore the spirit of the nation.

Saepo plateau

Cholong plateau

It was refreshing to see and hear that the people of North Korea have a great reverence for the Baekdu Daegan. I also experienced that sentiment from the rural folk of North Korea as I made my travels of the Baekdu Daegan.

In the north, the perception of the Paektu Dae San Julgi is that all mountains and ridges of the Korean peninsula are connected back to Paektu-san.  The Paektu Dae San Julgi, therefore is the ridge that emanates from Paektu-san, or the Baekdu Daegan as we call it. All other ridges are named after the most prominent mountain of that ridge. For example, the Turyu-jimaek that runs east from the Baekdu Daegan at Turyu-san 2309m in Paegam-gun, would be called the Turyu-san san-julgi (두류산줄기),  whereas, on a South Korean map, like the Sinsan-gyeongpyo, it is called the Turyu-jimaek (두류지맥). They have no Jeong-maek, Gi-maek, Ji-maek concept in the north. For the South Koreans, these terms of Jeong, Gi, Ji (maek) are more closely associated with veins or arteries, giving their mountainscape, a biological definition. However, this language is not well known amongst average South Korean citizens.

But what both North and South Korea can agree on is that they prefer not to use the concept of san-maek anymore, as this was a Japanese term.

I see these differences in geographical terms between north and south as minor. It’s all up for healthy discussion.

I asked the Kim IL Sung university professors, how they felt about discussing the topic of the Baekdu Daegan, be it geographical, scientific, or cultural, with professors and enthusiasts from South Korea. They agreed that would be an exciting prospect.

I thought, how can I make that happen? Can I organize a seminar between experts from North and South Korea? Where could it be held? Wouldn’t it be a fantastic way to bring dialogue to both sides? Build the Baekdu Daegan up as a national symbol that both Korea’s can share equally.

With Kim IL Sung University professors

With Kim IL Sung University professors

I think first we must make the Baekdu Daegan an official national trail in the South.

Currently, the management of the Baekdu Daegan in the south is an accumulation of different policies brought together by the counties it passes through. There is more effort by some local counties than others. The overall custodian is the Korea Forest Service, but even that is fractured because the Korea National Parks service has closed the Baekdu Daegan in some places where it passes through national parks.

In North Korea, I should mention, it is not even a trail, but a geographical feature that all North Koreans know.

If South Korea nationalized the Baekdu Daegan, the various trails could be collectively brought together into one national trail. It would mean setting up a separate body to manage the trail properly. The closed national park sections would have to be opened. It would mean that all the county policies would be subsumed by one national policy. It would mean that in places where the trail needs maintenance or development, it could now be done under a national budget. But, I wouldn’t want to see the Baekdu Daegan over-managed. I don’t want it to turn into a commercial adventure, where it becomes cluttered with tasteless tourist amenities that remove its naturalness. It suffers from that already in some places. Each piece of work would have to be a national decision. I also don’t want it to be swarmed by thousands of hikers every year so that it becomes damaged by erosion. The issuance of restricted licenses to hike it could overcome this.

Foreigners trekking the Baekdu Daegan.

A national policy on the Baekdu Daegan, can turn this natural ridge of huge spiritual and national significance to the Korean people, into a world-class and internationally recognized long-distance national trail. It will reveal to all outdoor enthusiasts around the world, that Korea is a land of steep mountains, deep valleys, and gushing streams. That its mountains are all interconnected by networks of ridges, that splay out from its spine the Baekdu Daegan. That Korea has a unique topography, unlike any other in the world, and that mountains are deeply ingrained into the psyche of the Korean people.

Mountain spirit ceremony on Taebaek-san

December 16, 2017: Recently I was a guest speaker for a group of about two hundred hikers on the edge of the Jinyang dam in Jinju. They were all members of well-known climber Pak Jeong-heon’s Himalaya art gallery.

It was interesting to hear how this group preferred the theory the Baekdu Daegan doesn’t end at Cheonwang-bong in Jiri-san, but continues, on to the shores of Jinyang dam at Gwigok village, where I was talking.

Sunrise from Cheonwang-bong 1915m.

We know that the Baekdu Daegan doesn’t in geographical theory end at Cheonwang-bong anyway. On any map, you can see it continuing from Cheonwang-bong into the Ongseok-jimaek (옹석지맥), and before Cheonwang-bong, there is another major ridge, the Naknam-jeongmaek, (낙남정맥), that ripples all the way, east to the mouth of the Nakdong river.

I brought up my romantic theory that the Baekdu Daegan ends at Korea’s holy grandmother mountain, Halla-san on Jeju island, if you were to follow it under water from Namhae. One commentator smartly said, “Well that means, the Baekdu Daegan goes all over the world then.”

Speaking to members of Pak Jeong-heon’s hiking team

In North Korea the Paektu Dae San Julgi, as they call it, ends at Gujae-bong 768m (구재봉) near the Seomjin-gang river in Hadong. I even went to Gujae-bong last year to take some photos of that peak, so the North Koreans could install it into their Paektu-san museum that is currently under construction in Samji-yeon, Ryangang-do.

I don’t mind where it ends. The more we talk about the Baekdu Daegan the better. It deserves the attention. Let’s make it a national trail I said to them, then we can all talk about it till we go blue in the face. They liked that.

Once we have a national trail in the south, we, or I, could take this model to North Korea. They know well the Bakedu Daegan. They understand it. So let’s get them to start developing the Paektu Dae San Julgi there as a national icon, and who knows, maybe one day when the political tensions are better, we can start to see South Koreans having access to it in the North. Then they can fulfil their natural pilgrimage back to the birthplace of the Korean people at Paektu-san.

In the meantime, just discussing the Baekdu Daegan being a national symbol of reunification for Korea is a good idea. Why not? It is the only natural feature that they both share and understand.

Paektu-san 2750m

On that sunny winter December day at Pak Jeong-heon’s gathering, as I was signing copies of my 2017 Baekdu Daegan guidebook, the national trail concept was still burning in my head.

Another guidebook, opened up in front of me, and I asked who I should sign it too?

“To President Moon Jae In.” Pak Jeong-heon replied.

I looked up at him, “You know the president? You can get the book to him?”

He nodded confidently.

So I signed the book; “문재인 대통령. 백두대간 남북통일!  Hurry up, please!” (President Moon Jae In. Unify the Baekdu Daegan!)

I hope he gets my message. I am willing to give a hand.

With Pak Seong-heon.


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