STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There's a special Mountain in North Korea called Mount Paektu. It's an important symbol there. It shows up on stamps. It's the focus of paintings and of patriotic songs, like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL GO TO MOUNT PAEKTU")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).
INSKEEP: Now, the activity of this volcano has become the cause of a tiny, tiny opening to a closed society. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: A few years ago, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died, the state news agency reported that Mount Paektu took on a supernatural glow. Those reports were pretty unscientific, but between 2002 and 2005, Mount Paektu did experience a swarm of little earthquakes, and that caught Kayla Iacovino's attention because Mount Paektu is a huge volcano. Iacovino is a volcanologist at Arizona State University, and she knew those little earthquakes can mean that molten magma deep under the mountain is starting to swirl.
KAYLA IACOVINO: And that can possibly lead to an eruption. And so people in the region, including North Korea, started to become a little - just a little bit wary of the activity at the volcano.
BICHELL: The North Koreans became nervous enough to do something they never do - ask Western scientists for help to figure out if and when it might blow. But you can't just hop on a plane to North Korea, says Iacovino, who, at the time, was working at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. She says it took about two years of back and forth with authorities on both sides. North Korea doesn't trust Western governments much, and the U.K. worried about unauthorized technology going to North Korea.
IACOVINO: All of us are kind of like, we just want to measure volcanoes. But the governments are like, hey, hey, we don't want you to bring anything into certain countries that has any chance of being used in missiles or, you know, weapons.
BICHELL: So they had to ditch their beloved magnetotelluric sounder. It's really useful for finding things you can't see, like pockets of underground magma, but also submarines. Eventually they worked it all out, and Iacovino and her colleagues packed up the rest of their top-notch equipment and went to Mount Paektu. They hiked there for about a week with North Korean geologists, chatting about rocks, enjoying the wild blueberries and setting up seismographs to map out the volcano's plumbing.
IACOVINO: It's really unprecedented what we were able to do in the country.
BICHELL: Government minders did follow them the whole time, and communicating with their North Korean collaborators since the trip hasn't been easy. They can't just email or pick up the phone. Still, this kind of collaboration is really important, says Stu Thorson, a political scientist who just retired from Syracuse University, not just for evaluating the potential threat of one volcano, but also because science can help build trust between countries. Even during the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union regularly had scientific exchanges.
STUART THORSON: And ultimately, that provided some of the trust and the basis for being able to enter into arms negotiation, arms limitation treaties.
BICHELL: Thorson himself has worked for years with scientists in North Korea and has traveled there about 10 times. He's excited to see the latest fruits of this volcano collaboration come out this week in the journal Science Advances. The gist of the paper, which includes the names of researchers in the U.S., U.K., China and North Korea, is that, about a thousand years ago Mount Paektu packed exploded - big time.
IACOVINO: We can now say that the eruption of Paektu was probably one of the largest eruptions in the last couple thousand years, not only in terms of the ash and rock output, but also in terms of the gas output.
BICHELL: They've learned a lot more about this potentially dangerous sacred mountain, and they're hoping to keep an eye on it because volcanoes don't care about borders.
Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.