SEOUL — South Korean President Moon Jae-in will clear a top item off his bucket list on Thursday: Climbing Mount Paektu in North Korea with its leader Kim Jong Un.
After the two leaders pledged new steps aimed at salvaging nuclear talks, South Korea made a surprise announcement that Moon and Kim will use the final day of their three-day summit to go up the symbolic mountain together.
Moon is known for his love of mountain climbing and has trekked in the Himalayas at least twice. The president has long stated that he would love to one day visit Mount Paektu, which is also sometimes spelled Baekdu.
As the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula at about 2,750 meters (9,000 ft) above sea level, Mount Paektu is the mythical origin of the Korean people, featuring in South Korea’s national anthem and various North Korean propaganda.
Although Mount Paektu straddles the North Korea-China border and can be reached from China, where it is known as Changbai Mountain, Moon has never visited.
That is because when he goes up Mount Paektu, he wants to go “stepping on our soil,” Kim Eui-kyeom, spokesman for the presidential Blue House, told reporters on Wednesday.
An active volcano, Mount Paektu is dotted with secret camps and historical sites from Korea’s guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese in the 1940s. A funicular railway takes tourists up the mountain, which also holds a huge crater lake.
“I have a dream that I have not been able to fulfill for a long time, which is trekking Mount Paektu and the Kaema Plateau (in North Korea),” Moon said during a banquet after his first summit with Kim in April, which took place at the demilitarized zone separating the two neighbors.
“I believe Chairman Kim will make that dream come true for sure.”
North Korea says Kim’s grandfather and father were born at Mount Paektu, a centerpiece of the North’s idolization and propaganda campaign to highlight the ruling family’s sacred bloodline.
Kim has previously visited the mountain around major developments in North Korea, such as visiting in late 2013 before he executed top officials including his uncle Jang Song-thaek, and after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in 2016, North Korea watchers say.
Moon was born in South Korea in 1953 during the Korean War. His parents had fled from the North during the war, sailing for three days on the deck of a US ship packed with refugees.
A former human rights lawyer, he said in a 2017 book published months before his election as president that he wanted to “finish his life” in his mother’s North Korean hometown doing pro-bono service.
“When peaceful reunification comes, the first thing I want to do is to take my 90-year-old mother and go to her hometown,” Moon wrote in the book.