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The Korean Peninsula's Sleeping Giant

Dr. Moonsup Cho, Professor of Geology at Seoul National University, in Seoul on April 17, 2012. (Asia Society Korea Center)
by Yvonne Kim
30 April 2012

SEOUL, April 17, 2012 — A seemingly dormant volcano located on the border between Manchuria and North Korea (and the tallest peak on the Korean peninsula) is potentially capable of destructive eruptions, argued Dr. Moonsup Cho, Professor of Geology at Seoul National University, in a luncheon presentation here at Asia Society Korea Center.

Dr. Cho's presentation, "The Millennium Eruption of Mt. Baekdu," referred to historical narratives and data from geological research by Tohoku University of Japan, in which an analysis of carbon dating of tephra layers (airborne volcanic discharge) found on the island of Hokkaido revealed an apparent pattern in the sequence of historical eruptions. The last one of significant magnitude, dubbed the "Millennium Eruption," took place around the 10th century A.D. and other documented preceding eruptions are estimated to have occurred in 1000-year cycles.

As Dr. Cho explained, all of this leads to the conclusion that it's time for us to witness an eruption — but he went on to assure his listeners that recent studies of the region's seismic activity dismiss the possibility of an imminent crisis.

The professor concluded with a remark on the challenges of obtaining information related to Mt. Baekdu due to restrictions from the North and a dearth of historical records, forcing researchers to rely on limited resources. And as the volcano is categorized "dormant," showing almost no noteworthy volcanic activity, government support for further study remains limited. Dr. Cho hoped for an international effort to encourage the government to support extensive studies in volcanology.

H.E. Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland to the Republic of Korea, followed with a brief presentation on Ireland's experience with the Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced eye-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl) eruption of Iceland in spring 2010. Amb. McKee explained that Europe was not fully prepared to deal with the event, which caused mass disruptions and considerable financial losses in the aviation industry.

Ireland alone tackled the crisis by immediately activating the Government Task Force for Emergency Planning, a concoction of up to seven different governmental agencies. Meanwhile, the E.U. responded to the eruption by establishing the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell, managed by EUROCONTROL, the region's air traffic management organization.

In his concluding remarks, Amb. McKee drew three experiential lessons from the event. Early activation of a task force, fast availability of up-to-date information through multiple channels, and persistent planning for future disruptions are crucial measures needed for crisis management.