News / Asia

    2 Koreas Hold Rare Meeting About Volcano

    South Korean chief delegate Ryu In-chang, right, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Yoon Yong Geun during a meeting to discuss joint research on volcanic activity at the North's highest Paektu mountain, at the Inter-Korean Transit Office in Pa
    South Korean chief delegate Ryu In-chang, right, shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Yoon Yong Geun during a meeting to discuss joint research on volcanic activity at the North's highest Paektu mountain, at the Inter-Korean Transit Office in Pa

    Representatives of the two Korea's held face-to-face talks on Tuesday. The rare cross-border meeting was prompted by this month's earthquake and destructive tsunami in Japan.  The delegations discussed cooperation in researching a potential eruption of a North Korean volcano.

    One of the South Korean scientists who participated says the one-day discussion concluded with a proposal by the North for more talks early next month. South Korea says it is considering that.

    Thirteen North Koreans, including three volcano specialists, crossed into the South for a meeting at the immigration office in the border town, Munsan.  They were greeted by four South Korean geologists for a day of discussions about the Mount Paektu volcano.

    Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, sees the scientific discussion as an icebreaker between the two Koreas amid an extended chill in relations.

    Yang says distrust between Seoul and Pyongyang is so deep right now that it is difficult to have substantive inter-Korean talks.  He says that is why  they are starting with something less political and more on a civil level.  But he thinks the dialogue could evolve into
    higher-level talks.

    Sacred mount

    For Koreans, the topic of the talks is quite symbolic.

    Many Koreans consider Mount Paektu, the highest on the peninsula, sacred. North Korea claims it is where its current leader Kim Jong Il was born. The mountain is also mentioned in South Korea’s national anthem.

    Paektu rises to more than 2,700 meters on the North Korean-Chinese border.  It has not had a volcanic eruption in 108 years.  However, some seismologists say recent topographical data, including satellite imagery, indicate it may have an active core and that a big eruption could cause a huge mountain lake to overflow and flood surrounding areas.  Ash from
    an eruption could also cause havoc for international air travel.

    The two Korea's have no diplomatic relations and fought a three-year civil war to a stalemate in the early 1950s.

    Yeonpyeong tensions

    Seoul blames Pyongyang for the sinking of a warship in the Yellow Sea, a year ago.  Forty-six South Korean sailors died.  North Korea denies any involvement.

    Last November, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people.

    Since the attack on Yeonpyeong island, the two Korea's have held preliminary defense and Red Cross talks which did not result in any breakthroughs for either side.

    North proposed talks

    The meeting about the volcano was proposed by Pyongyang, following the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

    At the start of Tuesday's talks, a member of the North Korean delegation said officials in Pyongyang are closely monitoring whether radiation from a nuclear power plant damaged by the Japanese natural disaster will reach North Korea.

    South Korea announced Tuesday that traces of radioactive iodine have been detected in Seoul and other locations on the peninsula.  The radiation in the atmosphere is believed to be from Japan’s stricken Fukushima-1 facility.


    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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