The Korean Peninsula is very mountainous, especially in North Korea. The landscape has affected the mentality and economy of its state. The beauty of Mount Kumgang and other mountains ignited myths and tales for a whole nation living on a rock.
The mountains of North Korea bear a huge significance for this tiny country. During the fight against the Chinese and later, during the revolution, the mountains gave protection in a guerrilla kind of warfare. The communist revolutionaries knew the tracks and trails of the northern mountains like their pockets and turned out to be victorious. The mountains also represent the harshness of the land. As 80% of the country is covered by rocks, it’s hard for agriculture, as well as building tunnels and roads. So when the North Koreans celebrate the mountains, they are celebrating survival.
There are six sacred mountains in North Korea and one of the most loved elevations is Mount Kumgang or Diamond Mountain. For us this East Coast treasure was worth a day trip (around 7 hours ride from Pyongyang) two times on our trip, which was a great fortune as it was off limits for foreigners until 2010. It’s 1638 metres high and located close to Wosan, not too far from the DMZ, actually. This close proximity was the main reason for the lockdown. There have been times, when Kumgang was a special meeting point for Southerners and Northerners, but at the moment, this is not possible. It is one of the most celebrated national treasures, composed of thousands rugged granite and diorite peaks and cliffs and waterfalls. Kumgang-San is the mountain of the 12.000 peaks.
One of the pearls of Kumgangsan (endearment of Mt.Kumgang) is the Kuryong waterfall. A smashing 74 m high and 4 m wide waterfall, which is particularly interesting because it’s the origin of a few myths. Kuryong means nine dragons, which were the protectors of the waterfall. But that is not all, there is also a tale about fairies. Above the Kuryong falls are 8 great ponds, which are layered one on top of another and always filled with crystal clear water. It looks like a remarkable necklace of blue pearls.
This attracted eight immortal fairies, who came down to play on the peak. Before they returned to the heavens each of them washed themselves in one of the ponds. But a young man watched the scene and fell in love with one of the fairies and then took her flying gown. In consequence the fairy gave in and married the man and gave him three children. But the man loved her and gave the flying gown back for her to return to the heavens. She left, but missed him and the children so much, that she gave up eternity and lived with her family on mount Kumgang.
I was stunned by the carvings in the stones with Chinese (Korean characters became mainstream only in the 20th century) and Korean characters. They have been historic inscriptions, telling little stories. But also contemporary political chants. I thought the interference was masterfully done. But the interaction of nature and politics is powerful, which I will try to explain here.
One thing is key to understand a bit more about North Korea. The DPRK sees itself as the continuation of the grand Koryo Empire of the past. As a national state, that inherits all of the glory and also all of the past storytelling of Korea. This is a huge difference to other socialist countries, which were founded in the 20 century such as the Soviet Union, Cuba or lets say the GDR – East Germany. These countries were created more or less from the scratch in consequence of a war or revolution. Everything new in the workshop, in case of the USSR, they even formed the people after their ideal, the Soviet human, in all the Soviet Republics.
There were new heroes, new songs and new tales to keep the community together. So why is that difference of significance? Because the DPRK manages to take their mountains and their myths as national treasures and utilizes them to glorify the current regime. All of the mountains are holy in North Korea, but Mount Baekdu (at the Chinese border) is the most important one, especially as it was vital in the guerrilla warfare in the Korean war and is considered the sacred mountain of the revolution. It is so holy, that Kim Jong Il was born on the top of the mountain (rumor has it, that this rather happened in Russia, while his father was training for the revolution). Every child knows the songs about Baektdu, which silhouette is included in the North Korean emblem and even rockets and computers are called Paektusan. You see, folklore and Ideology become one in the DPRK. Just last year Kim Jong Un climbed the snow covered peak of Baekdu at 2744 m with leather shoes, eazy breezy.
Maybe there are similar stories and myths in every region of the planet, but they might have vanished over time and the appearance of the ever-changing pop culture. You have to understand, that there is no pop culture from the west entering the DPRK. So all the entertainment consists of theatre plays and movies, folkloristic songs and tales. Besides the stories of the revolution everybody agrees upon the songs of the marvelous mountains and can chant them. It’s like whistling the tunes of Brittney Spears or INXS in the rest of the world.
I am coming from a country where folklore was also once used for propaganda and was justly washed away with the tides of time. That´s why I understand the mechanics but I also consider it a beautiful thing to know about the folklore of your home. So I enjoy that the North Koreans love their natural treasures and sing their songs.
One of the most remarkable stories in the North are about the waterfall of Ulim. Kim Jong Il managed to discover a hidden waterfall, basically by himself in the year 2001. He was around Mount Kumgang and heard the stream of water. He then guided his entourage and workers in the right direction and there it was: Ulim. I was quite amazed, that in such a small country waterfalls could be undetected, until a grand leader comes along.
Now, that’s been found it is very easy to approach. You enter Mount Kumgang from the north through Okryu Valley and hike for about an hour. But it’s worth to take your time. For us it was a great opportunity to talk to our guides in private. It was a time for bold question and surprising answers. In front of the waterfall is a little stone plateau with the exact date carved on it – the day when Kim Jong Il gazed at Ulim, as it was opened for the public.
Another mountainous region that I have seen was the Kaesong industrial and tourist zone. It’s close to the DMZ in the South of the North and was meant to bring both parties together. Cheap labour from the north produced products for the South. And Southerners had the rare chance to come visit the North and even met relatives. A few years back there has been an incident, which led to the shooting of a South Korean woman – so the zone was suspended. The zone is amidst the Mountains Pongmyong and Songak. They seem a bit more peaky, but there are beautiful trees and and wonderful sunsets.
In eight days I surely haven’t seen everything of North Korea’s mountains, but I think I have got a feeling for the deep significance for each and everyone in the North. Connected with politics, history and the love of nature. These words are only my recollections and thoughts, I don’t claim it’s all a hundred percent researched and proven. It’s just another tale from my point of view.
For some the love for Korea’s mountains will withstand the turns of time. The Chinese poet Su Shi said once: "If I were to die the day after seeing Kumgang, I would have no regrets!“ Nothing to add. By the way, he lived from 1037 until 1101 a.d.