On Sept. 20, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the sacred Mount Paektu with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, following two previous summits between the two leaders.
Standing on the beach with their wives, Kim remarked to Moon that “the Chinese envy us because they can’t go down to the lake from their side, but we can.”
Located on the Sino–North Korean border, Mount Paektu is a sacred landmark in Korean history and culture. It features Heaven Lake, which is divided into two parts. The southern 54.5 percent belongs to North Korea, while the northern remainder belongs to China.
All of Paektu and the surrounding area was under Chinese sovereignty for centuries, until the Chinese communist authorities signed an agreement with North Korea in 1962. The Chinese ceded half of the mountain and Heaven Lake as a gesture of friendliness between the communist states.
While most South Koreans, as well as tourists from elsewhere, must visit the lake from the Chinese side, it’s only possible to reach the water from a beach on the North Korean side.
Following the recent thaw in North–South diplomacy, Moon expressed his desire to visit the sacred mountain.
While at the beach, Moon filled a plastic bottle with water from Heaven Lake to take back with him to South Korea.
“Many South Koreans go to Mount Paektu from the Chinese side,” Moon said. “But I decided not to, as I vowed that I would go there while stepping on our [Korean] soil.”
“We should write another chapter of history between the North and the South and reflect this new history on Heaven Lake,” Kim told Moon.
Kim Jong Un is the grandson of Kim Il Sung. Despite the country’s para-Marxist juche ideology, the Kim family has ruled North Korea as a de facto dynasty since the regime’s founding in 1948.
In recent months, North Korea has become the focus of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia and an important aspect of the Sino–U.S. relationship. In particular, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has propped up the North Korean regime as a counter to American influence in the region, including South Korea and Japan.
But Pyongyang’s newest engagements with its neighbors and the United States, including a groundbreaking summit held June 12 between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, suggest that North Korea may be trying to rid itself of its role as a Chinese client.
Kim has committed to denuclearization, and North Korea has taken steps to dismantle its provocative nuclear weapons program. The most recent Kim–Moon summit further confirms Kim’s desire to negotiate a formal end to the state of war that still technically exists between the North and South.
Mount Paektu, called Changbai Mountain in Chinese, is the highest mountain in Northeast China and the Korean Peninsula. It is the source of Northeast China’s three main rivers: the Songhua, Tumen, and Yalu.
Koreans believe that Mount Paektu is the birthplace of Dangun, the legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom (2,333 B.C.—108 B.C.), more than 4,300 years ago.
Yeongjo (1694—1776), king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, named Mount Paektu the greatest of all Korean mountains. Yeongjo also began the tradition of holding annual rites on the mountain, which then belonged to the Chinese Qing Dynasty.
Yeongjo also changed the mountain’s Korean name to Paektu, which comes from the name given it by the Manchurian ethnic group that ruled over China during the Qing Dynasty until 1911.
After World War II, Korean communist leader Kim Il Sung built up his army in the mountain range between China and Korea. North Korean propaganda claims that his son, the second North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, was born at Mount Paektu (his real birthplace was in the Soviet Union).
On Oct. 12, 1962, then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai approved a border treaty with Kim Il Sung that ceded the currently North Korean portion of Paektu Mountain to Pyongyang, according to research by Chinese historian Shen Zhihua at the Chinese University of Hong Kon.
The treaty was kept secret until 2000, when South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo received a confidential document from Chinese authorities.
According to the treaty, the CCP gave about 460 square miles of territory to North Korea, including half of Heaven Lake and the fertile land around it. Tens of thousands of Chinese citizens had to leave their ancestral homes to accommodate the change.