Kim Jong-il, the late Supreme Leader of the totalitarian Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is said to have been born on the summit of Mount Paektu—a 9000-foot volcano straddling the border between China and North Korea. It was in the trees and valleys below this peak that, North Korean histories also claim, his father, Kim Il-Sung, lead an army of guerilla fighters based out of a secret mountain encampment on dangerous missions against colonizing Japanese forces.
But Mount Paektu also has a much broader, and perhaps even more violent, place in global history. Around 946 AD, this towering volcano caused one of the largest eruptions of the past couple millennia and spewed ash as far as Japan. A decade ago, it started rumbling once again. A 2010 study suggested that the volcano is "capable of rapidly producing catastrophic, explosive eruptions in the foreseeable future."
Those rumbles, absent at the moment, prompted a rare collaboration between the reclusive North Korean state, who had a pressing interest in understanding the risk that it presented, and the West. The first of the studies to come from this joint effort was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
James Hammond, one of the authors on the new study and a volcanologist at the University of London, says he was surprised when, back in 2011, he got a call asking if he was interested in participating on a research project in North Korea.
"It was quite a relaxed atmosphere once we were up on the volcano."
This call was the last link in a long chain of communications that originated with the North Korean Earthquake Administration, moved through an NGO to a senior editor of Science Magazine, and finally to Hammond's colleague at Cambridge University, Clive Oppenheimer, who extended the invitation for him to participate.
Mount Paektu is known to any volcanologist worth their salt because it's sort of an unsolved problem. "There's no real consensus as to why the volcano is there in the first place," Hammond explained to Motherboard. "It's not sitting on a plate boundary, which is normally where we find most volcanoes." When he got the call from his colleague, the initial meeting was just two weeks away. Nevertheless, he agreed to go without hesitation.
When the scientists first landed in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, It was the anniversary of the founding of the DPRK, a national holiday. Even before scientific presentations and a flight in a chartered Soviet-era plane to the volcano's base, the team's first view of the country was the same filtered view most outsiders have, a militant show of force in the form of a massive parade. "Kim Jong Il was there waving," Hammond said.
As the team starting working together as geologists, however, things became more relaxed, Hammond said. As colleagues, their charge was to develop a new research program for this enigmatic peak. The team decided on a modest goal: generating a snapshot of the interior of the volcano. This, he said, was to be a test case for more ambitious future collaborations.
For their part, the North Korean geologists were uniformly part of the North Korean elite, but represented many ages and education levels. Many had PhDs from—or were students at—the elite Kim Il Song University. Most researchers were men, Hammond said, but not exclusively.
The most significant roadblocks the team faced were not cultural, but political. The team, for example, had originally wanted to use a mapping technique called magnetotellurics, but international sanctions ban the required equipment from entering North Korea. The team settled on a more classic approach, using seismometers to map the depths below Mount Paektu.
When in the field, the geologists were mainly installing seismometers and collecting samples from around the North Korean side of the volcano. Long bus rides through the mountainous countryside were commonplace. To pass the time, Hammond said, they sang songs. The North Koreans went with traditional folk songs.
The Westerners sometimes took requests. The North Koreans were really curious about hip-hop, Hammond said. Unfortunately the only hip-hop the British geologist knew was Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff's opening theme music to "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," a song he attempted to perform for the others. "They clapped politely," he said.
In the field, the geologists mainly discussed their family lives. "They're obviously as curious about our way of life as we are of theirs," Hammond said. Though present in the early meetings, government minders were not a huge presence once a degree of trust was established, Hammond said. "It was quite a relaxed atmosphere once we were up on the volcano."
So far, Hammond has been to North Korea eight times. His trips have included a mix of fieldwork and scientific discussion. "A lot of the people we worked with, their whole life's career had been working on the volcano," he said. "It felt like a real collaboration, in that sense, that we were both learning from each other."
This study published today won't solve all the mysteries of Mount Paektu. It reveals a massive pool of magma that has melted into the surrounding crust in a more complicated way than had been expected. But, Hammond said, the work was a necessary first step in better understanding the risk the volatile peak may present, and it was a noteworthy diplomatic success.
He attributes the success of this project (which has at least five more years of funding) to its deeply non-political goals as well as the two groups' shared interest in the same scientific questions. Now that a rapport and trust has been developed, Hammond says, the team hopes to develop some "more ambitious" studies at Mount Paektu in the future.
He'll be returning to Pyongyang next week.