Printer Friendly

One river and three states: the Tumen River triangle and the legacy of the postsocialist transition.

IN THE PREFACE TO THE TUMEN TRIANGLE DOCUMENTATION PROJECT, James Hoare, the inaugural British charge d'affaires in Pyongyang during 2001-2002, reflects on the recurring but somewhat tarnished hope for the development of the area around the Tumen River: the project was initially conceived in the early 1990s, but Hoare refers to it as "an old story" (Hoare 2013, i). The enigma of the hope for development of this area lies in the fact that although the project has not materialized, hope for it has not completely died. Sentiment surrounding the Tumen River Area Development Project (TRADP), renamed in 2005 as the Greater Tumen Initiative (GTI), continues to oscillate between hope and disappointment, and the future outlook for this region remains uncertain and unpredictable.

Reflecting on this conundrum, I provide an overview of where the hope for development lies and the main issues involved in pursuing development of the Tumen River borderland region. In the first part of this article, I briefly discuss the history of TRADP and GTI and highlight the main issues surrounding the project. I then discuss the main issues in each country that have arisen alongside TRADP and GTI, and I also consider the implications of plans for pipelines for energy delivery in Northeast Asia. Throughout, I focus on North Korea and Russia as they are considered to bear much of the blame for the lack of progress in the development of the Tumen River area. I provide an explanation for the similarities exhibited by North Korea and Russia in their faltering transition to a market economy, and I examine how the "asymmetric end of the Cold War" (Sakwa 2011, 964) has contributed to the failure of TRADP.

TRADP and GTI: A Brief History

In the area referred to as the Tumen River triangle, the river, or more precisely the mouth of the river, is located at the center of the triangle, its three outlying corners positioned in China, Russia, and North Korea. (1) The interesting characteristic of this river is that it functions as a border between these three countries as a result of the Peking Treaty of 1860, which enabled the Russian Empire to acquire the territory up to the Tumangan (as the Tumen River is called in Russian) of northern Joseon. (2) The Tumen River and its surrounding area subsequently became the site of violent conflict and global power shifts, notably the Russo-Japanese War, the establishment of Manchukuo in 1932 (which was toppled at the end of World War II by Soviet intervention), the partition of the Korean peninsula, and the beginning of the Cold War in East Asia. The history of conflict culminated in war in Korea when North Korean forces, backed by Chinese "volunteers" and Soviet military support, clashed with the US-led United Nations force from 1950 to 1953.

When the trilateral border eventually opened to the outside world (i.e., to capitalist countries) in the early 1990s, it was initially considered to hold great potential for the development of the region. The widely held assumption was that the strengths of each of the three countries would complement each other, leading to prosperity in the area as the center of Northeast Asia in the new post-Cold War era. The common formula repeated in many documents and international conferences was the combination of "cheap labor of China and North Korea, natural resources in Russia and investment of capital from South Korea and Japan" (Christoffersen 1996, 267). Moreover, the geographical fact that the river flows into the Pacific Ocean and provides a corridor to maritime shipping routes provided even greater impetus to the notion of developing the region. (3)

It is worth noting that TRADP emerged in the context of the ending of the Cold War and the opening of the border between China and Russia, which had been closed since the early 1960s and completely shut following their territorial conflict on Damansky/Zhenbao Island on the Heilongjiang/Amur River in March 1969. (4) We can view TRADP as part of the postsocialist transition process, as it was a development project targeted at "underdeveloped" former socialist countries. As a project sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), TRADP had the potential to become an exemplar of international aid development, in contrast with the infamous "shock therapy" (Hann and Hart 2011, 130-131) that resulted in the chaotic economic deterioration of many socialist countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The detailed historical research that is required to fully investigate the opening up of former socialist countries in Northeast Asia and the conception of the idea for the development of the region is beyond the scope of this article, but it seems that the core idea for TRADP was suggested at the first gathering in Changchun in 1990 of scholars and former government officials from China, the United States, Japan, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, and South Korea. In particular, a paper presented by Ding Shicheng (1991) at that meeting, titled "Development of the Tumen River Region and Its Effect," proposed the basic idea for TRADP from the Chinese point of view. It was favorably received by the UNDP (5) and led to the creation of a nongovernmental organization called the Northeast Asian Economic Forum and, later, to the establishment of the international project known as TRADP. At the same time as these discussions were taking place, Russia and North Korea designated free economic zones in Nakhodka and Rajin-Sonbong; this accorded with the spirit behind the TRADP proposal but took no account of China's desire for access to the sea.

The size of the area designated for development depends on which cities are chosen as the triangular points of the project. At the beginning, a relatively small triangle connecting Hunchun (China), Rajin (North Korea), and Pos'et (Russia) with an area of 1,000 square kilometers was conceived as the core of the free economic zone. This was referred to as the Tumen River Economic Zone (TREZ). The development model for the zone was one of diffusion in which its positive effects were expected to ripple out from the core to the surrounding wider area. However, as we will see later, what rippled out was the contradictory tension inherent in the development concept. Later, a larger triangle was drawn connecting Yanji, Cheongjin, and Vladivostok (also Nakhodka), which was called the Tumen River Economic Development Area (TREDA). After several meetings of government representatives between 1990 and 1995, the project was finally launched at the end of 1995. (6)

Five countries officially participated in the project: the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), the Republic of Mongolia, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Japan had initially expressed interest in taking part, but it preferred a Yellow Sea Rim Economic Zone or a Japan Sea (East Sea in Korea) Rim Economic Zone that would have included the development of the northeastern region of Japan around Niigata. (7) In the end, Japan chose not to join the project. That decision is viewed as a major factor in the project's subsequent "failure" since it had been hoped that Japan would provide crucial investment for the project, particularly in its role as the largest shareholder of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) (Hughes 2002).

Without Japan's participation, the only viable investor country among the other participants was South Korea. In the end, however, South Korea failed to play that role, mainly due to the complexity of the inter-Korean relationship, which was in a state of continual flux. Though the first stage of the TRADP project should have spanned the period from 1995 to 2005, in reality the project came to a halt in 1998. This followed several interruptions caused by North Korea's frequent nonparticipation in the meetings of government representatives for TRADP, accompanied by heightened tension over its nuclear weapons program (Tsuji 2004).

After a hiatus of several years, the project was renamed the Greater Tumen Initiative in 2005 and was relaunched for the next ten-year period. China took on the leading role in this new initiative, as Chinese economic growth had been rapid enough for it to provide major investment in new infrastructure, which was a prerequisite for the success of the entire project.

In addition to China's new role, several other changes occurred that differentiated GTI from TRADP. First, each country adopted the initiative as its own national development project, while loosely cooperating in the five focused areas of "trading, tourism, transportation, energy, and environment." (8) The area encompassed by GTI was also extended beyond the larger triangle of the first project and was no longer triangular in shape. Finally, GTI sought to proactively engage with local authorities, as it was discordance between local authorities and central governments that had been one of the main reasons for the failure of TRADP in all the countries involved, apart from North Korea.

The Failure of the Tumen River Area Development Project

TRADP is generally judged to have failed in the sense that it did not achieve the goals or realize the dreams that were conceived at the beginning of the project. (9) The project not only did not result in international collaboration, it also did not introduce any visible developmental changes to the region. Indeed, North Korea withdrew its participation from GTI in December 2009, citing the lack of any achievement. (10) In this section, I examine local forms of postsocialist transition in relation to the development of this area and provide an explanatory framework for the progress or lack of progress on the project in each country.

China: Postsocialist Liberalization, Provincial Competition, and Freedom of Movement Across Borders

China has been the most active and enthusiastic member of the borderland development project from its initial conception to the present day, changing its role from that of a participant member to that of the lead investor. For China's central government, TRADP presented a means of achieving subregional development that was more attractive than joining already existing regional economic groups such as APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) that were closely linked with the Western market system represented by the United States and Japan (Christoffersen 1996). In other words, China's domestic concern was to develop its three northeastern provinces by transferring the model for development it had successfully implemented in its southeastern coastal region.

Targeting the border provinces, the central government and the local authorities actively aimed to "link with the south, open to the north" (Christoffersen 2003, 221). Though China and Russia both have centralized government systems, their provincial governments in the Tumen border area relate differently to their central governments--a difference closely linked with the cultural notion of the border in China and Russia (Bille 2012). (11) The main issue in the development of the borderland in China stems from provincialism, which arose during the Qing period (Bulag 2012) and has led to competition among the provinces, each one preferring transnational links (Christoffersen 1996).

According to Christoffersen (1996), in northeast China the provinces of Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin have pursued development in connection with Japan, Russia, and the Koreas, respectively. Accordingly, the three geometrical areas of the Yellow Sea rim (by Liaoning), the Tumen Triangle (by Jilin), and the Japan Sea Rim/Heilongjiang-Primorskii Krai trading partnership (by Heilongjiang) have been in competition with each other. Unlike the other two provinces that have maintained a positive relationship with Japan and South Korea, Heilongjiang experienced a backlash due to the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Russian Far East (RFE). This reached a climax in 2001 when Nazdratenko, the governor of Primorskii Krai, directly confronted Moscow using the supposed threat from China as leverage for demanding greater economic aid. (12) This aspect of local politics was a significant factor in reconfiguring the focus of the development plans by the Chinese central government, even though the relationship between Moscow and Beijing could not have been better. (13)

The other important aspect of the Chinese central government's policy toward the border area was regulating (or to be more precise, liberating) the movement of people--allowing them greater freedom of movement across the border. Usually, if residents near the border submitted letters from relatives in neighboring countries to the Chinese authorities, they were allowed to cross the border without carrying a visa or passport. This was facilitated by Russia's visa-free tourism in the early 1990s and the fact that China and North Korea had not enforced strict controls on their border even during the Cold War years. (14)

To sum up, the Chinese government's border policy exemplifies China's state-led process of free marketization not only for the provinces, which resulted in international partnership with neighboring countries and competition between them, but also for individual residents who were encouraged to seize opportunities to better their lot. This mobility-friendly policy was usually aimed at minority peoples in the borderland, allowing them to pursue their entrepreneurial activities outside China (Shneiderman 2013). Indeed, many ethnic Koreans in northeast China took this opportunity and set out on business trips to North Korea and Russia. (15) Many of them made the crossing to North Korea using the "permit to cross the river" (dogangjeung), not only the Yalu, but also the Tumen (Kang 2012). (16)

Mrs. Lee, a Korean Chinese woman in her early forties who now lives in Yanji, told me during my fieldwork that she used to cross the Tumen River at Tumen city by bus in the early 1990s with just such a paper permit in order to barter in North Korean border towns. She would take consumer goods to North Korea and exchange them for products such as dried seaweed and fish. She would then return to Yanji and sell them, using the proceeds to buy more consumer goods for her next trip to North Korea. According to Mrs. Lee, she could often double or triple the value of her initial investment in this way. (17) Mrs. Lee added that she stopped this shuttle trading as her elder sister thought such activity inappropriate for a young unmarried woman, since it "made her face too tanned." However, I believe that another factor may have been strict state regulations on private trading in North Korea, whereby her border trading was under constant surveillance by the North Korean security force (gong-an). As a result, bartering usually took place at private houses and did not lead to the formation of a defined marketplace. This strict surveillance by the North Korean government stands in sharp contrast to the postsocialist path adopted by Russia, which saw the lifting of all state regulations on economic activities and resulted in the formation of Chinese markets in many cities in the RFE.

Another interlocutor, Mrs. Kim (born in 1956), a Chinese Korean woman who is now trading in the RFE, also took advantage of these regulations on the movement of people when she began her trading business in the early 1990s. She traveled to Central Asia in 1991 when China began to allow its citizens to travel abroad, and she returned to Yanji with twenty invitation letters from Koreans in Central Asia. She was able to sell these letters from "paper relatives" in Central Asia to others in Yanji, who in turn ventured to Central Asia. This reproductive circulation of goods and people across the border expanded and led to the creation of a number of "capitalists" who earned considerable fortunes through border trading. The formation of these successful businesses can be referred to as "the primitive accumulation of capital," a phrase borrowed from Karl Marx (Park 2013).

Last but not least, China's need to secure a seaport on the Pacific and counterbalance unequal development between its northeastern and southeastern regions provided a major impetus for its active participation in the TRADP. The designation of Hunchun as a special economic zone and heavy investment in its infrastructure are proof of the Chinese government's commitment to the development of Northeast Asia.

Russia: The Center and Periphery, and the Turn to Asia

Analysts well informed of the situation in the RFE (Alexseev 2002; Christoffersen 1994; Rozman 2008) certify that local governments in the 1990s and early 2000s used their position on the border with China as a negotiating tool with the central government in Moscow. Local Russian officials raised the specter of Chinese migrants' soon outnumbering Russians in the RFE and the possible annexation of the region by China unless the central government made serious efforts to make the RFE a more habitable and attractive place for its citizens. This Sinophobia was not only an attempt to obtain financial aid from the central government but also an expression of the frustration of local people who experienced great hardship following the sudden collapse of the state economy.

Because of the defense sector's primacy in the RFE economy, with many army bases located there during the Cold War, the ending of tensions and the disintegration of the state-planned economy was particularly damaging for this region. It resulted in widespread out-migration of soldiers and their families to the European part of Russia, where the living conditions were more tolerable, and it left many settlements in a state of utter desolation. (18) The dismantling of state socialism in the RFE may best be described as state-neglected liberalization, in contrast to the state-led liberalization that characterized the postsocialist transition in northeastern China. For residents of the RFE, their sense of betrayal and neglect by Moscow was made more bitter by their daily experience of poor-quality Chinese goods and profit-seeking Chinese traders. Every local town in the RFE had its own stories concerning shoddy Chinese goods, such as bugs in fur coats or skin trouble caused by imported clothing, and people would reminisce about the "sturdy" (krepkii) goods of Soviet times that made them proud to be Soviet citizens. (19)

Regionalism in the RFE dates back to the nineteenth century when tsarist Russia advanced into the area and regarded it as a colony (Stephan 199 8). (20) However, regionalism has taken different forms depending on the historical period and political context. In my view, the most characteristic feature of the RFE regional ethos, and one that differentiates it from its Siberian counterpart or provincialism in northeast China, lies in the way that sentiments derived from internal colonialism are intertwined with the region's direct transnational connections with East Asian countries and the Pacific. (21)

I contend that local people in the RFE do not view their position vis-a-vis Moscow as an unequal relationship in simple center-periphery terms but rather in terms of consumer goods and their transnational links with neighboring countries. Whereas in Soviet times they enjoyed the status of proper consumers of Soviet goods, their perceived exploitation by Chinese traders selling poor-quality goods in the 1990s was felt to reflect their low status and lack of worth in the eyes of Moscow. This regional ethos has adversely affected Tumen River development and hindered Sino-Russian cooperation at the central-government level. For example, the demonstration at the burial site of war heroes who died in the Khasan War/Chankufeng Battle in 1938 prevented the transfer of a parcel of land at the mouth of the Tumen River to China, a transfer that would have enabled China to construct a seaport and gain access to the sea (Zinberg 1996). (22)

In asserting their regional identity, a new cultural logic is emerging for people in the RFE in which reference to the quality of transnational goods becomes a statement about themselves and their identity in relation to the central government. While the state neglected the East Asian part of Russia during the postsocialist transition period, people in the RFE had to find a way to live by either trading cheap Chinese goods or secondhand Japanese cars, or deciding to migrate to the European part of Russia. In this context, the way that local people continually make reference to the quality of transnational goods can be seen as an attempt at justifying their transnational mode of livelihood while averting any suspicion of possessing any bonds with people across the border. (23)

Since becoming president, Vladimir Putin has attempted to place the provinces under the control of the central government by getting rid of local elections for district governors and replacing horizontal connections among local governments with hierarchical ones between Moscow and the provinces (Petrov 2011). Furthermore, the central government has begun to push an ambitious development project for eastern Siberia and the RFE, even creating a ministry in charge of this project: the Ministry of Development of East Siberia and the Far East. The holding of the most expensive 2012 APEC Summit Conference in its history in Vladivostok appeared to signal the central government's serious commitment to the development of eastern Siberia and the RFE. In recent years, one rarely encounters anti-Chinese sentiment in the region now that the central government has invested in the infrastructure of Vladivostok and has made serious policy efforts to improve living conditions in the Asian part of Russia.

However, this renewed development project has to take into account the legacy of the postsocialist transition when people in this region were forced to rely on their own resources due to lack of support from the central government. Paradoxically, this state-neglected liberalization in the RFE created opportunities for economic change that includes Chinese markets and trade in secondhand Japanese cars, sectors that are still important sources of income for many residents of Primorskii Krai today.

North Korea: Its Northern Border and the Inter-Korean Relationship

North Korea is generally viewed as the main culprit for the failure of Tumen River area development, while Russia is also occasionally accused of showing insufficient interest in the project. During the preparation period for the project in 1990-1995, North Korea often walked away from meetings or failed to attend. However, I should note that this period coincided with the regime crisis in North Korea following the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994.

When the Tumen River project was first proposed, Kim actively embraced it with a view to developing the Rajin/Sonbong (Rason) special economic zone in order to solve the economic problems caused not only by the stagnant state-planned economy but also by the dissolution of the socialist economic bloc (Tsuji 2004). Unfortunately, Kim's death occurred at the beginning of the TRADP, and the great famine and suspected development of nuclear weapons in North Korea that followed in the mid-1990s put the DPRK on a course opposite from the development trajectory envisaged by the TRADP. (24) However, the Rason project was not abandoned; it was merely put aside, viewed as part of the "legacy business" (yuhun saeop) of Kim Il-sung. The recent development of the Rason area reported in the North Korean media can be viewed as the fulfillment of this legacy (Tsuji 2004). (25)

The northern border of North Korea is important in understanding the country's relations not only with China and Russia but also with South Korea. That border with China and Russia is also connected to the inter-Korean border, the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), and indirectly rather than directly (Kang 2012; Petrov and Morris-Suzuki 2013) with the Dandong-Sinuiju corridor connecting the Gaeseong (Kaesong) Industrial Complex and Incheon harbor. This creates a circular trading route between South and North Korea. Similarly, on the eastern side of the Korean peninsula, the Russo-North Korea border is also dependent on "the future of the dividing line separating North from South Korea" (Petrov and Morris-Suzuki 2013, 35). Hence the agreement between Russia and North Korea for the reconnection of railway links and the construction of gas pipelines is able to proceed only when the inter-Korean relationship is peaceful and cooperative or at least not stridently antagonistic. (26)

However, this dependence on the relationship between North and South Korea now seems to be weakening as a result of business transactions in the China-North Korea border zone. Indeed, the flow and exchange of goods and people across the Yalu/Amnok River through the Dandong-Sinuiju corridor shows that the sanctions imposed by South Korea on North Korea are losing their efficacy and that trade between North Korea and China has become relatively independent of the political relationship between the two Koreas. (27) As many observers have reported, Sino-North Korean border trade is flourishing, with the result that economic conditions in North Korea are slowly improving. However, it remains to be seen whether the Russo-North Korean connection on the eastern side can lead to a greater flow of people and trade across the dividing line between the two Koreas.

During Lee Myung-bak's presidency in South Korea, the inter-Korean relationship deteriorated markedly due to two military incidents precipitated by the North. These incidents followed the Lee government's antagonistic stance on inter-Korean relations and resulted in South Korea's suspension in 2010 of inter-Korean economic activity and cooperation except for the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. However, according to my interview with a South Korean businessman in Dandong, this order failed to have any significant effect as it was not able to limit the flow of trade across the Yalu River.

The current situation on the China-North Korea side of the Tumen River appears to replicate what has been happening across the Yalu River, although on a much smaller scale. The Russia-North Korea side of the Tumen River, however, is a different story. The main difference lies in the sparse human settlements across the Tumen River between Russia and North Korea, in stark contrast with the dense settlements on the Chinese side. In addition, the number of ethnic Koreans living in Russia is small compared to those in China, and the majority of them are concentrated in urban areas of the RFE far from the Tumen River border. (28)

To summarize the attitudes and relationships among the three riparian countries in the Tumen River triangle, Russia and North Korea have been the main stumbling blocks for progress in the development project mainly due to problems between central and local government in Russia and inter-Korean tensions in the case of North Korea. Having said that, Russia and North Korea share a couple of interesting political features. First, both are highly concerned with the issue of sovereignty and how to locate themselves in their liminal positions--Russia in between the civilizations of Europe and Asia and North Korea in between the great powers, China and Russia. Despite differences of scale, their political identities are both based on an insistence on absolute sovereignty, resulting in the subordination of their domestic affairs to international concerns. (29)

The second similarity I see between the two countries lies in their experience of the dismantling of socialism and the Cold War order (Sakwa 2011). The postsocialist period of economic crisis resulted in millions of fatalities in North Korea and great economic hardship in Russia that made it impossible for these two countries to make a positive contribution to the Tumen River Area Development Project. Among the postsocialist countries, Russia and North Korea are the only ones that can be viewed as exceptions to the overwhelming victory of the global liberal order, for they maintained their staunch opposition to the universality of democracy and human rights. Nevertheless, since breaking their socialist alliance in 1996, Russia and North Korea have kept their distance from one another. That situation may be changing now in response to the geopolitics of energy, which I examine next as a process that has evolved alongside the Tumen River project.

Pipelines and Cross-Border Interdependency Along the Tumen River

One important process that has evolved alongside the Tumen River Area Development Project has been negotiations for the construction of pipelines for transporting natural gas and oil from Siberia to East Asian markets. In 1993, at the same time as TRADP's inception, China became a net oil importer and had to put forward a state policy for its future supply of oil from abroad (Christoffersen 2004). Initially, China looked to the Middle East, but then began to consider the possibility of cooperating with Russia as a better option, not only in terms of logistics, but also due to Russia's abundant natural resources. (30)

Meanwhile, Russia's push to expand its influence in the Asia Pacific region is closely related to problems presented by the geopolitics of energy or "pipeline politics" in the Euro-Atlantic part of Russia, exemplified by a series of crises in Ukraine and the Baltic countries. These problems arose when Ukraine and the Baltic countries tried to escape Russia's sphere of influence by leaning to the West, such as when the Baltic countries joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004. Russia then sought to use its energy as a weapon in an attempt to punish and control them, such as by closing the oil pipelines and raising the price of gas (Balmaceda 2007; Grigas 2013). (Gas is more effective than oil in sustaining the dependency of these countries, as oil can be shipped from other countries for a price similar to Russia's.) Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the EU has diversified its energy sources and decreased its imports of gas and oil from Russia.

Unlike the geopolitics of energy on the European side, which is largely based on pipelines that were constructed during the Soviet period, oil and gas pipelines from Russia to East Asian countries must be newly constructed. Due to the interconnected ness of pipelines, their construction has massive economic and political implications for the countries concerned. Rather than explore the complex negotiation processes and divergent interests involved in the routing of these pipelines, I will briefly examine a couple of the main issues that share common characteristics with the Tumen River project.

First, as Stephen Collier's work (2011) on the public sector and communal residence in post-Soviet Russia shows, infrastructure such as pipelines creates a collective way of life, despite the aim of neoliberal shock therapy to "debundle" the "substantive economy" that had been formed during the socialist era. Though his work mainly concerns pipelines for heating in urban settlements, pipelines for the transportation of energy resources similarly create interdependency among those connected at an international level. This seems to be the main reason why negotiations for the construction of gas pipelines between China and Russia have been unable to proceed smoothly, as China has demanded equity investment in their construction, a condition that Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled energy company, has rejected. Clearly, both parties want to settle the crucial issue of control of the infrastructure before agreeing on the construction (Paik 2012).

Timothy Mitchell notes that a certain form of governing is "the outcome of particular ways of engineering political relations out of flows of energy" (2011, 5). It would therefore be interesting to observe what kind of politics and limits for liberal democracy would result from the flow of gas through pipelines constructed in the former socialist countries in Northeast Asia. One particular aspect of this question is the way that gas is delivered from the source to the end users and the economic and social implications for all the actors and entities involved. As can be seen in the case of energy politics between the supplier (Russia) and recipient countries in Eastern Europe (which also act as transit countries for the export of Russian gas to Western Europe) and also in the negotiation of pipelines between China and Russia, gas rather than oil is the focus for questions of interdependency and the control of the pipelines since oil can be transported across oceans without any special processing and buyers can easily diversify their sources. In contrast, it is more cost-effective to allow gas to flow through pipelines, as shipping it across oceans requires facilities to change it into liquefied natural gas. When such pipelines run alongside or across borders, they not only function as conduits of gas but also make the supplier country and recipient country tightly interdependent.

A second issue raised by the current geopolitics of pipeline construction across borders in Northeast Asia is a reminder of the historical situation surrounding the construction of railways in Manchuria, which led to competition and war between China, Russia, and Japan. (31) Railways were the main method for transporting coal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the industrialization of Northeast Asia. The coal economy established a period of transformation based on a set of relationships between "colonization and industrialization" (Mitchell 2011, 17). The "carbon democracy" of the Cold War was based on similar competition in which the consumption-led market economy and the state economy coexisted, though ultimately the latter was defeated. (32) I have argued here that it was this defeat and the "asymmetric end of the Cold War" (Sakwa 2011, 964) that were the main hindrances to progress in the Tumen River's triangular development.

In discussing the national identity of Russia, Sakwa suggests that the notion of "the international" (2011) can be useful in extending our analysis of a country in which international relations are interwoven with domestic politics. According to Sakwa, regardless of whether it was a monarchy or a socialist state, Russia has been obsessed with sovereignty in defining its political identity ever since the creation of its historical memory and its status as a "vassal state (suzerainty)" under the "Mongol yoke" (Sakwa 2011, 958). Drawing on Carl Schmitt's conceptualization of "the nomos of the earth" (political pluralism as the common rule based on Westphalian sovereignty), Sakwa interprets Putin's deliberate confrontation with Europe and the United States as an attempt at the "democratization of the international order" (2011, 971) in order to redress the asymmetrical ending of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, with the triumph of the free market economy and the defeat of the socialist model, "the political" (Mouffe 2005) has lost its power in the global arena. National survival has become the paramount matter for the national economy, despite the unrelenting advance of globalization. Economic inequality produced by US-led globalization appeared in its starkest form on the national boundaries of Russia and North Korea during the postsocialist transition. The two countries chose to follow different paths to meet this challenge: North Korea directly confronted US hegemony by further reinforcing state controls, while Russia liberalized its system. That is why it is important to observe closely what is currently happening with Tumen River area development and the pipelines through North Korea, as they could provide signs of regeneration from economic disaster in North Korea and the convergence of North Korea and Russia, which have taken different routes during the last two decades.


As I stated at the beginning of this article, the location of the Tumen River triangle as a borderland in Northeast Asia was the reason not only for the initial conception of the international development project but also for the problems in its implementation. I have tried to show the complexity of this border area in the framework of the postsocialist transition from local perspectives, with the exception of North Korea, which rarely allows access for empirical research (though Green's article in this special issue tries to overcome this obstacle). In particular, I have tried to illustrate the different national stances on Tumen River area development projects, from the more ambitious and active approach taken by China to the more reluctant approach adopted by Russia and North Korea, highlighting the different ways in which these socialist systems have unfolded in the three countries.

While these different stances brought the Tumen international development project to a halt, subsequent progress in national development projects in each riparian country has reinvigorated the need for international cooperation. As these national projects converge, an important research task will be to investigate what kinds of ideas and concepts underlie this renewed phase of development in the borderland region. I have made reference to the two contrasting ideologies of transnational capital and territorial sovereignty that drove the Tumen triangle development project in the 1990s and early 2000s and have shown how these driving forces became manifest in the local context (Arrighi 1994).

While writing this article, the gulf between China and the United States appears to have widened further. In addition to the heightened tension in the South China Sea, Beijing's move to extend its influence in the region by founding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has been countered by a US attempt to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in each case without the other's membership. It is not yet clear how these confrontational stances between the two global powers will affect the Tumen River area, but the tension inherent in the development project between a free market economy and territorial sovereignty appears to be rippling out on a global scale, as can be seen in the fundamental differences of approach between the AIIB (focused on infrastructure) and the TPP (focused on movement of capital). In the same way, however, it is possible that small-scale local achievement in the development of the area may create positive consequences as well. That is why a locally based approach with more empirical investigation is valuable in order to fully understand this area as a "microcosm of Northeast Asia" (Hughes 2002, 143).


Hyun-Gwi Park is a research fellow at Clare Hall and affiliated researcher in the Department of East Asian Studies, Cambridge University. Her current research is on translocal intersections across borders in Northeast Asia, highlighting how global change is interwoven with national issues. She is particularly interested in the northern exterior of the Korean peninsula in the modern period as it relates to the position of Korea in a global context. She has published articles in Inner Asia and the British Association of Korean Studies Papers. She can be reached at

The data I have drawn on in the article are from my fieldwork research in 2012 and 2014. The fieldwork research was possible thanks to an individual research grant from the Toyota Foundation (grant number D11-R-0465); I am grateful for their financial support. Writing this article benefited from collaboration and support from the research team for the UK's Economics and Social Sciences Research Council Large Grant ("Where Rising Powers Meet: China and Russia at Their North Asian Border"). I am grateful for their support, and especially to Caroline Humphrey and Franck Bille. Heonik Kwon provided me with initial inspiration for writing this article. However, needless to say, the arguments and opinions in the article are solely mine, and I am fully responsible for any shortcomings or mistakes, if any.

(1.) This area is discussed by Cathcart and Green (2013) with a focus on North Korea. They rightly point out the dual aspect of the Tumen River triangle both as the subject of a development project and also as a geographical area.

(2.) For an extensive historical discussion on the relationship between Korea and Russia, see Pak (2004).

(3.) The potential benefit for China from gaining access to the Pacific Ocean has led to the coining of the phrase jie gang chu hai (literally, to borrow a foreign port and gain access to the sea). The geostrategic benefits of securing a seaport at the mouth of the Tumen River are, first, a reduction in the transportation cost of shipping natural resources from northeastern provinces to the developed and energy-hungry southeastern coastal region compared with overland railway transportation; second, the potential for the development of a North Arctic navigation route that would shorten China's sea route to Europe by 6,000 kilometers compared with the route via Africa; and third, access for China to the Sea of Japan in the case of a worsening of territorial disputes and an outbreak of hostilities in the South China Sea. A Chinese academic who holds a high position at a governmental research institute commented to me that "the Tumen River is our national dream." See Pulford's article in this special issue for a more detailed discussion of China's longing for access to the sea via the Tumen River, with a focus on Hunchun.

(4.) See Petrov and Morris-Suzuki (2013).

(5.) Available at Northeast Economic Forum,

(6.) The agreement is available on the Internet, for example at the Greater Tumen Initiative ( and the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability ( For a detailed discussion of the preparation period leading up to TRADP, see Marton, McGee, and Paterson (1995).

(7.) Christoffersen (1996) discusses Liaoning province's backing for the Yellow Sea rim proposal, which Japan considered a more feasible option in the context of China's engagement with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

(8.) See the Greater Tumen Initiative website,

(9.) For example, see Hankeyoreh 2013.

(10.) Daily NKNews at The original broadcasting of this withdrawal came from Kyoto News and NHK in Japan; see Yeonhapnews (2009).

(11.) Bille (2012) suggests that the border in China is imagined as a zone, whereas in Russia the border is considered to be a line, and that this difference results in Chinese practices along the border being more diffusive and expansive and Russian ones more limiting and protective. Moreover, the relationship between the Chinese central government and its provinces is not one of pure domination and subordination, as the center fears potential antigovernment sentiment in the provinces. This is a subject discussed by Lattimore (1932) many years previously in the case of Manchuria.

(12.) Putin sacked Nazdratenko and tried to replace him with a person whom Moscow preferred. However, in the next election in 2001, Putin's candidate failed to be elected (Alexseev 2002). Despite this confrontation, it would be misleading to conclude that the central and provincial governments in Russia were in permanent opposition, as Nazdratenko later moved to Moscow to take up an important position in the central government. For a study of the vertical control of provinces from Moscow in the Putin era, see Petrov (2011).

(13.) Since the 2000s, China has changed its focus for securing a seaport with access to the Pacific Ocean from Zarubino in Russia to Rason in North Korea, and has invested heavily in the infrastructure of Jilin province. I believe that one reason for this shift was the discord at the local level in the 1990s and early 2000s.

(14.) See Larin (2005) for Russia's migration policy in the RFE.

(15.) Of course, many Koreans went to South Korea as migrant laborers at this time. Those who went to Russia preferred the prospect of trading to manual labor or were unable to find work in South Korea.

(16.) I am grateful for Kang Juwon, who shared his work with me. According to Kang (2012), the permit to cross the river was introduced during China's Great Leap Forward in 1960-1962, so that people experiencing hunger could escape to North Korea, which was economically better off than China at that time. It is believed that more than two-thirds of Koreans in Dandong crossed the river. This permit was later used for shuttle trading purposes in the 1980s that brought secondhand Japanese electrical goods (originally brought from Japan by pro-North Korean zainichi repatriates) for sale from Sinuiju to Dandong. Here, what is important is that the river between China and North Korea was open during the Cold War, with substantial trade taking place across it. A similar situation exists for Koreans in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture across the Tumen River. Until quite recent times and at least until the 1990s, the Tumen River formed part of a shared social world for people on its banks in China and North Korea. My interlocutor in his late seventies in Yanji spoke of "fishing in the river and sharing fish soup and drinking together after that" (author field note dated June 2012).

(17.) Author field note dated July 2, 2014.

(18.) See Vaschuk et al. (2002).

(19.) Author field note dated April 2003.

(20.) John Stephan (1998) states that the acquisition of Manchuria by the Russian Empire in 1860 was made possible by Governor-General Muraviev's initiative, accompanied by the support of "political exiles and young officers who flirted with the notion of detaching Siberia from orthodox Russia and forming with the Republic across the Pacific a United States of Siberia and America." Though this claim is not usually taken seriously, it is still alive in Siberia today.

(21.) Unlike John Stephan, I am reluctant to use regionalism in the case of the RFE. I prefer to use the term regional ethos to describe the overarching atmosphere and disposition among the people in the RFE. Regionalism implies strong separatist sentiments and it may misrepresent local peoples' deep sense of belonging to Russia.

(22.) The Khasan War was a small-scale conflict between the Soviet and Japanese armies. It took place at the trilateral border of China, Korea, and Russia (Pompret 1998).

(23.) See the article by Vaschuk and Konyakhina in this special issue.

(24.) See Harrison (2002) for a discussion of an alternative path North Korea could have taken in relation to the construction of gas pipelines and the nuclear crisis.

(25.) One source claims that Kim Il-sung had already designated Rajin and Sonbong as prospective free economic zones in February 1989 (Tsuji 2004, citing a report by an institute of economics in South Korea).

(26.) However, the two presidents, Park Geun-hye and Putin, were able to reach several agreements in November 2013 despite the lack of improvement in inter-Korean relations. These included an agreement for a consortium of South Korean companies to acquire 30 percent of the Russian investment in the development of Pier 3 in Rason and visa-free visits between the two countries.

(27.) For the influence of the Sino-North Korean border economy within North Korea, see Green in this issue.

(28.) It is estimated that approximately 75,000 Koreans resided in the RFE in 2009-2010 (Kireev 2012). The majority of these people were located on Sakhalin Island, in Khabarovskii Krai, and in Primorskii Krai.

(29.) It would therefore be interesting to see how Russia's preoccupation with "real sovereignty" (Kokoshin 2006, cited in Sakwa 2011, 971) and the "ultra-sovereignty" of North Korea (Armstrong 2009, 47) fit in a global context.

(30.) For a more detailed discussion of Sino-Russian energy cooperation, see Paik (2012).

(31.) There is a relatively large amount of historical research on railway construction and its effects in this region from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Some notable works are Wolff (1999), Elleman and Kotkin (2010), and Chiasson (2010).

(32.) Carbon democracy is a term coined by Timothy Mitchell to define the postwar political system based on an energy economy centered on oil. Such a system "depends upon creating a stable machinery of international finance, an order assembled with the help of oil wells, pipelines, tanker operations and the increasingly difficult control of oil workers" (Mitchell 2011, 132).


Alexseev, Mikhail A. 2002. "Instrumental Internationalization: Regional Foreign and Security Policy Interests in Primorskii Krai." Working Paper no. 18. Zurich: ETH Zentrum SEI.

Armstrong, Charles K. 2009. "Socialism, Sovereignty, and the North Korean Exception." In Sonia Ryang, ed., North Korea: Toward a Better Understanding. Plymouth: Lexington Books, pp. 41-55.

Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso.

Balmaceda, Margarita M. 2007. Energy Dependency, Politics and Corruption in the Former Soviet Union: Russia's Power, Oligarchs ' Profits and Ukraine's Missing Energy Policy, 1995-2006. London: Routledge.

Bille, Franck. 2012. "On Ideas of the Border in the Russian and Chinese Social Imaginaries." In Franck Bille, Gregory Delaplace, and Caroline Humphrey, eds., Frontier Encounters: Knowledge and Practice at the Russian, Chinese and Mongolian Border. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, pp. 19-32.

Bulag, Uradyn E. 2012. "Rethinking Borders in Empire and Nation at the Foot of the Willow Palisade." In Franck Bille, Gregory Delaplace, and Caroline Humphrey, eds., Frontier Encounters: Knowledge and Practice at the Russian, Chinese and Mongolian Border. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, pp. 33-53.

Cathcart, Adam, and Chris Green. 2013. "Tumen River Triangle as Project and Region." In Adam Cathcart and Chris Green, eds., The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project: Sourcing the Chinese-North Korean Border. Sino-NK,

Chiasson, Blaine R. 2010. Administering the Colonizer: Manchuria's Russians Under Chinese Rule, 1918-29. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Christoffersen, Gaye. 1994. "The Greater Vladivostok Project: Transnational Linkages in Regional Economic Planning." Pacific Affairs, vol. 67, no. 4 (Winter), pp. 513-531.

--. 1996. "Nesting the Sino-Russian Border and the Tumen Project in the Asia-Pacific: Heilongjiang's Regional Relations." Asian Perspective, vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall/Winter), pp. 265-299.

--. 2003. "The Political Implications of Heilongjiang's Industrial Structure." In John Fitzgerald, ed., Rethinking China's Provinces. London: Routledge, pp. 221-246

--. 2004. "Angarsk as a Challenge for the East Asian Energy Community." Mongolian Journal of International Affairs, no. 11, pp. 104-128.

Collier, Stephen. 2011. Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ding Shicheng. 1991. "Development of the Tumen River Region and Its Effect." Paper presented at the First Northeast Asian Economic Forum, Changchun, China, August 29,

Elleman, Bruce A., and Stephen Kotkin, eds. 2010. Manchurian Railways and the Opening of China: An International History. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Grigas, Agnia. 2013. The Politics ofEnergy and Memory Between the Baltic States and Russia. Post-Soviet Politics. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Hankeyoreh Newspaper. 2013. "Bureaucracy and Mistrust Still Undermine Northeast Asia's Massive Economic Potential." May 16, www.hani

Hann, Chris, and Keith Hart. 2011. Economic Anthropology. Cambridge: Polity.

Harrison, Selig S. 2002. "Gas and Geopolitics in Northeast Asia: Pipelines, Regional Stability, and the Korean Nuclear Crisis." World Policy Journal, vol. 19, no. 4 (December), pp. 23-36.

Hoare, James. 2013. "An Old Story Told Anew." In Adam Cathcart and Chris Green, eds., The Tumen Triangle Documentation Project: Sourcing the Chinese-North Korean Border. Sino-NK,

Hughes, Christopher W. 2002. "Tumen River Area Development Programme (TRADP): Frustrated Micro-Regionalism as a Microcosm of Political Rivalries." In Shaun Breslin and Glenn D. Hook, eds., Microregionalism and World Order. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 115-143.

Kang Juwon. 2012. "Chungjo Kukkyongdosi Tandonge Taehan Minjokchijok Yon 'gu: Pukhansaram, Pukhanhwagyo, Chosonjok, Han 'guksaram Saiui Kwan'gyerul T'ongaeso" [An ethnography of the Sino-North Korean border city Dandong: Focusing on the relationship between the North Koreans, the Chinese in North Korea, Chinese Koreans, and South Koreans]. PhD diss., Seoul National University.

Kireev, Anton. 2012. "Koreitsy na rossiskom dal'nem vostoke: Diaspora ili subnatsional'naia obshchnost'?" [Koreans in the Russian Far East: Diaspora or subnationality?]. Vladivostok. Izbestiia Vostochnogo Instituta [Proceedings of the Oriental Studies Institute], no. 1, www

Kokoshin, Andrei. 2006. Real'nyi suverenitet v sovremennoi miropoliticheskoi sistemy [Real sovereignty in the current world political system]. Moscow: Evropa.

Larin, Victor. 2005. "Chinese in the Russian Far East: Regional Views." In Tsuneo Akaha and Anna Vassilieva, eds., Crossing National Borders: Human Migration Issues in Northeast Asia. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, pp. 47-67.

Lattimore, Owen. 1932. Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict. New York: Macmillan.

Marton, Andrew, Terry McGee, and Donald G. Paterson. 1995. "Northeast Asian Economic Cooperation and the Tumen River Area Development Project." Pacific Affairs, vol. 68, no. 1 (April), pp. 9-33.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2011. Carbon Democracy. London: Verso.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2005. On the Political: Thinking in Action. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Paik, Keun Wook. 2012. Sino-Russian Oil and Gas Cooperation: The Reality and Implications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pak, Boris D. 2004. Rossiia i Koreia [Russia and Korea]. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo IV RAN.

Park, Hyun-gwi. 2013. "The Migration Regime Among Koreans in the Russian Far East." Inner Asia, vol. 15, no. 1 (August), pp. 77-99.

Petrov, Leonid, and Tessa Morris-Suzuki. 2013. "On the Frontiers of History." In Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Leonid Petrov, eds., East Asia Beyond the History Wars: Confronting the Ghosts of Violence. London: Routledge, pp. 29-39.

Petrov, Nikolay. 2011. "Who's Running Russia's Regions?" In Vadim Kononenko and Arkady Moshes, eds., Russia as a Network State. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 81-112.

Pompret, Richard. 1998. "The Tumen River Area Development Programme." IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 4 (December-January), pp. 80-88.

Rozman, Gilbert. 2008. "Strategic Thinking About the Russian Far East: A Resurgent Russia Eyes Its Future in Northeast Asia." Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 55, no. 1 (January-February), pp. 36-48.

Sakwa, Richard. 2011. "Russia's Identity: Between the 'Domestic' and the 'International.'" Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 63, no. 6 (July), pp. 957-975.

Shneiderman, Sara B. 2013. "Himalayan Border Citizens: Sovereignty and Mobility in the Nepal-Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China Border Zone." Political Geography, vol. 35 (July), pp. 25-36.

Stephan, John J. 1998. "Siberian Salient: Russia in Pacific Asia." In Mark Borthwick, ed., Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia. Boulder, CO: Westview, pp. 487-506.

Tsuji, Hisako. 2004. "The Tumen River Area Development Programme: Its History and Current Status as of 2004." Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia [ERINA] Discussion Paper, Niigata, Japan.

Vaschuk, Angelina S., Elena N. Chernolutskaya, Valentina A. Koroleva, German B. Dudchenko, and Larisa A. Gerasimova. 2002. Etnomigratsionnye protsessy v Primor 'e v 20 Veke [Ethnic migration process in Primorskii Krai in the twentieth century]. Vladivostok: DVO RAN.

Wolff, David. 1999. To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898-1914. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Yeonhapnews. 2009. "Bughan, Yuen Dumanganggyehoeg Taltoe" [North Korea, withdrawal from UN Tumen River Development Project]. December 2,

Zinberg, Yakov. 1996. "The Vladivostok Curve: Subnational Intervention into Russo-Chinese Border Agreements." IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 3 (Autumn), pp. 76-86.
COPYRIGHT 2016 Lynne Rienner Publishers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Park, Hyun-Gwi
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jul 1, 2016
Previous Article:Introduction to the special issue.
Next Article:Charisma in a watery frame: North Korean narrative topographies and the Tumen River.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters