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Seoul to accept N.K. offer for talks on Baekdu volcano

The Seoul government said Friday it was reviewing North Korea’s proposal to hold talks on possible volcanic activity at Mount Baekdu amid reports that an eruption was near.

The North said in a letter addressed to South’s weather agency Thursday that the two Koreas should discuss conducting joint research, on-site surveys and symposiums on the volcano.

“It is our understanding that the North suggested inter-Korean talks on the volcano,” an official here said.

“Related ministries such as the Unification Ministry and the Korea Meteorological Administration are discussing how to respond (to the proposal).”

Seoul plans to suggest when and how to hold the talks as soon as it is ready.

The proposal from the North’s earthquake bureau came as the communist regime continues calls for talks with the South, which many officials here see as a game plan to seek aid for its impoverished people after heightening tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Considering that the Rodong Shinmun, the newspaper published by the North’s Workers’ Party, downplayed the possibility of Mount Baekdu’s eruption last month, North Korea watchers here say Pyongyang may be using the volcano as a way of opening dialogue while all eyes are on quake-stricken Japan.

The two sides are expected to take the opportunity to resume talks on the North’s attack on a South Korean border island in November and the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan a year ago, which is also blamed on the North.

Inter-Korean military talks faltered last month when the North Korean delegation walked out, flatly denying responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan.

The South and North had agreed in late 2007 to conduct a joint study on Mount Baekdu’s volcanic activity, but no follow-up measures have taken place since.

Mount Baekdu, located on the North’s border with China, last erupted in 1903, but experts have warned that it may have an active core, claiming there is a build-up around the mountain of sulfur dioxide, a volcanic gas associated with volcanic activity.

Some Chinese experts predict that an eruption could take place as early as 2014, with recent earthquakes in China deepening concerns.

The KMA earlier this month announced a series of “preemptive” measures South Korea should take in case there is an eruption.

Under the new measures, the KMA will begin using one of its meteorological satellites next month to monitor possible volcanic activity at the 2,744-meter mountain and build a sonar observatory within the year to watch out for a volcanic eruption.

Experts have warned that an eruption could cause damage far greater than in Europe, where the eruption of a volcano in Iceland last year caused massive flight disruptions.

Mount Baekdu also contains 1 billion tons of water in its crater lake, which could flood surrounding regions and even bring about political chaos in the destitute North, experts say.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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