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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Kim Jong Il’s Mount Paektu “birthplace” and surrounding areas appear to be undamaged, despite October 2014 reports in the South Korean media which said a “raging wildfire” had burned the tourist spot down.
Recent photos of the site – which holds particular reverence in North Korea due to propaganda history about Kim Jong Il’s early life there – show no sign of damage to the structure or nearby forest, even when compared to pictures taken before the alleged wildfire.
The lack of damage comes despite claims in the Daily NK that a nearby wildfire destroyed the site before spreading southeast to neighboring Paekam county, a result of high winds and dry, autumn leaves.
“The Baekdu Milyong home and most of the historic revolutionary landmarks have gone up in flames,” a Daily NK source said last year about the effects of the fire.
“Already people are saying, whether the fire was deliberate or an accident, anyone tied to it will probably be executed …” the source continued. “If it’s arson, it will be a huge problem..”
But a recent visitor to the site, who requested to remain anonymous, told NK News there was no evidence of wildfire at the tourist spot – or in forests nearby.
“It was thick with tree cover all round the actual camp itself and all the drive to it,” the source said of an August 2015 visit. “All round the camp was shrouded (with trees). I saw nothing singed, or sooty or blackened stumps among the foliage.”
A 30-40 minute drive from the site, known to foreign visitors as the Paektu Secret Camp, there were however indication of changes in local topography.
“There were areas of cleared land near to Samjiyon airport, but it seemed to be (the result of) normal logging,” the source said, noting cleared areas went back approximately 20 meters from the road.
One possibility is the fire, which was also reported by South Korean daily newspaper the Dong-a Ilbo, may have been put out by local residents before it got too close to the Secret Camp location.
“Residents staged a do-or-die battle, including shoveling of soil on land extending hundreds of meters around Jongil Peak, to prevent the fire from spreading to Kim Jong Il’s house of birth, and brought in dozens of water pumps from nearby areas,” a source told the Dong-a Ilbo the same day as the Daily NK’s story last October.
But another source, who also spoke to NK News on condition of anonymity, said local tourist guides claimed to have heard nothing about wildfires in the region, even when asked about the news claims. It is not uncommon for some tourist guides to hide details of accidents or problems in North Korea.
Evidence of a major wildfire would normally be visible on publicly available Google Earth imagery. However, the imagery of forestry in Samjiyon county is out of date, the last update being from October 2013, a year prior to the two reports about fire.
Daily NK reporter Kang Mi Jin told NK News Wednesday that she tried to verify claims put forward by NK News regarding the fire with multiple sources within North Korea.
However, numerous challenges come with contacting inside sources, she said, namely that it often takes time and is heavily dependent on both their accessibility and protocols set in place for their protection.
The Daily NK is the longest-running specialist North Korea news service on the internet and is a regular provider of in-country sourced material.
In general, verifying claims issued by in-country sources is not straightforward, given Pyongyang’s ongoing efforts to monopolize the flow of information in, out and within North Korea.
The Mount Paektu secret camp is a popular location for both domestic and international tourists. The site is what North Korean propagandists claim to be Kim Jong Il’s native home and the location of his birth on February 16, 1942.
Tourists are shown some of the late leaders toys, including a toy fun and jigsaw of the Korean peninsula.
The official history of Kim Jong Il’s early years contrasts with Soviet records of his birth, which say Kim was born there as Yury Irsenovich Kim, the son of a rank and file officer of the Red Army, Kim Il Sung, whom Stalin later nominated to lead North Korea.
Main picture shows Paektu Secret Camp in August 2015. Source: NK News