The Baekdu Daegan mountain range twists its way more than 1,000 miles down the length of the Korean Peninsula, from the sacred peak of Baekdusan on the North Korea-China border to Jirisan in central South Korea. Today, it is choked off by landmines and barbed wire at the demilitarized zone, but once, it was considered the "spine of the nation" -- a source of spiritual energy and strength for the Korean people.
At least 75 percent of the Korean Peninsula is covered by mountains, and long before the country was divided -- first by Cold War politics and then by a war -- Koreans shared a reverence for the power of these peaks. Mountains are prominent in Korean art and literature. Koreans practicing animism once paid homage to mountain spirits to ensure them safe passage on their journeys. Today, the lyrics of both countries' national anthems still sing the praises of Baekdusan, or Great White Mountain, the sacred peak said to be the place of ancestral origin for the Korean people.
Over the past two years, New Zealand native Roger Shepherd was granted rare permission to spend more than two months in the mountains of North Korea as part of his efforts to document the Baekdu Daegan as one ridge, north and south. Shepherd has made three trips to the country, during which he covered more than 6,000 miles and visited more than two dozen mountain peaks.
"These days we see Korea as divided," Shepherd says. The Baekdu Daegan system, he tells FP, helps remind us that geographically, Korea is still one entity with a shared history and a shared culture as mountain people. "I hope my work can reinvigorate that mindset." These are the revealing photographs from his time in the country known to most of the world as "one of the most closed and secretive nations on earth."
Above, farmers catch a lift across the Saepo-gun plateau below the Baekdu Daegan ridge in Kangwondo, DPRK.