North Korea and the Tumen River
The Tumen River forms the border between Russia, China, and North Korea. Its mere 512-kilometer length belies its strategic importance, writes Leonid Petrov in the Asia Times. Of particular note is the 17-kilometer stretch that forms the boundary between Russia and North Korea:
Colonialism, World War II and the Cold War are gone but their legacy is a bouquet of unresolved problems. Territorial claims, in one form or another, involve almost all countries adjacent in this region with the exception of Russia and Korea. The Joint Russian Federation-DPRK Commission for the Demarcation of State Borders has recently completed its work by documenting and marking the 17-kilometer frontier. This strip of uninhabited and swampy land in the mouth of the Tumannaya (Tuman-gang) River plays an exceptionally important geopolitical role. It not only provides the two countries with land access to each other, but also prevents Chinese access to the East Sea (Sea of Japan).
Many wish to see the Tumen Basin develop into a place for economic cooperation and competition. One such plan is the Greater Tumen Initiative, or GTI (formerly known as Tumen River Area Development Project (TRADP), being carried out under the auspices of the UNDP. The 20-year 80-billion-dollar plan calls for the creation of port facilities and transportation infrastructure in the region to support a multinational trade entrepot.
A map showing the Tumen River Area. The shaded region is China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. (Map via China Perspectives).
The goal would be to give traders in Manchuria easier access to major international ports without having to circumnavigate the Korean Peninsula and thus stimulating growth in China’s northeast rustbelt. It would also give Russia the ability to better exploit resources in Siberia and allow easier access to North Korea’s resource-rich hinterland; the area just to the south of the Tumen contains reserves of oil, minerals, coal, timber, and abundant farmland. Petrov continues:
Here, some 50km north of the small port that forms the core of North’s Rajin-Seonbong Special Economic Zone, the interests of Russia and China are now at stake. Russia is rapidly repairing the railroad track, and China (in a similarly speedy manner) is constructing a new automobile highway, both leading from their respective borders to the port of Rajin. Russia, investing at least 1.75 billion rubles (US$72 million) into this project, seeks to strongly connect Rajin (and the rest of northern Korea) to its Trans-Siberian Railroad. China, in turn, hopes to divert the growing cargo traffic to its own territory, offering the efficient network of railroads for delivery of South Korean and Japanese goods to Central Asian and European markets. What position will the government of North Korea take in this clash of ambitions?
One major stumbling block is the simmering political tensions in the region, especially those related to North Korea’s nuclear issue. Outstanding issues related to World War II still lurk just below the surface of Russo- Japanese relations. A colonial border issue in the Gando region near Mt. Baektu was resolved by China and North Korea, but South Korea does not recognize this resolution and, should reunification occur, old scars might one day be torn open. In addition, according to one report:
There is also the fear of economic and political domination by Japan and China over the project and consequently over other parts of the other members internal development. There is an extremely long legacy of animosity in the region, especially with Japanese colonization, that make the political barriers very difficult to break (See: TED Case Studies: Tumen River Project).
These regional tensions, unless resolved, will certainly prohibit the success of the project .
From a human rights perspective, the relatively uninhabited and lightly-guarded Tumen Region is an important escape corridor for North Korean defectors and lifeline to the outside world through which necessary black market provisions can seep through uninhibited.
You can explore the Tumen Region via Google Maps here.