North Korea, whose repressive totalitarian regime habitually issues bellicose threats to other countries and prides itself on its political ideology of juche, or self-reliance, has long been one of the most isolated nations on the planet.
It turns out, though, that that North Korea's paranoia about the outside world is trumped by an even greater concern about an actual menace - Mount Paektu, a massive 9,000-foot-tall volcano that sits on the hermit nation's border with China. In a rare display of openness, the North Korean regime has allowed western scientists to join its own researchers and install sensing instruments on the volcano.
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In an article in Science Advances - one of the few ever published in the west with a North Korean lead author - the scientists reveal their discovery that Paektu has a soft core, composed of melted crust, and that it's likely fed by a complex magma reservoir.
But so far, the scientists haven't been able to come up with an explanation for how the volcano came to exist in its particular location. It lies hundreds of miles west of the so-called Ring of Fire, where many of the planet's biggest volcanoes have been created by the collision of tectonic plates, according to an accompanying story in Science magazine.
Back in the early 2000s, earthquake swarms and ground swelling in the area raised North Korean worries that the long-dormant volcano might erupt as massively as it did back in 946 AD, when it flung hot rocks and debris for hundreds of miles, and spewed ash in into the atmosphere that reach Japan. That eventually prompted the regime to invite volcano experts from the United States and Great Britain to study Paektu.
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Due to international sanctions against North Korea and the reclusive regime's own bureaucracy, however, it took until 2013 for the scientific team to be able to import needed equipment, according to an account in the Christian Science Monitor. One sensing device that the scientists tried to bring in was barred by North Korean officials, because the same technology was used by militaries to track submarines.
Eventually, though, the scientists were able to install a line of six seismometers on Paektu, and they spent two years recording motions beneath the surface that helped scientists to map the volcano's structure.
South Korean scientists have expressed concern over the years that blasts at a nuclear test site 60 miles away from the volcano might trigger an eruption, The Independent reported.
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That Paektu would force the North Korean regime into cooperating with western scientists is an odd irony. The mountain has an iconic role in the nationalist mythology fostered by North Korea's regime, which claims that Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korean communism, made his headquarters there in a secret camp in the 1930s and 1940s. A house in which he supposedly resided is maintained as a patriotic shrine for North Koreans today.
A state-controlled newspaper reported that current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the founder's grandson, scaled the volcano in 2015, and published a photo of him supposedly standing on top of it.
North Korea is so secretive that many volcanologists weren't even aware that the massive volcano existed, according to Wired.