[Viewpoint] North Korean port is slipping away

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[Viewpoint] North Korean port is slipping away

China is using North Korea to help develop provinces in northeast China. This might not sound too alarming, but it could be a matter of grave concern for the South. The South’s interests are affected by any economic development in northeast China.

At the center of the development is the North Korean port of Rajin. The history of Rajin harbor goes back to 1905, when Japan used the port after the annexation treaty was signed to ship out material pillaged from Korea and bring in munitions. The port was designated as a free economic zone in December 1991. In 1995, Rajin was included as a part of the United Nations’ development program for the Tumen River area.

Would I be exaggerating if I said the fate of China’s three northeast provinces depends on the Rajin port?

Northeast China has a wealth of energy resources and is a key production base. Coal-based power generation from this region provides electricity to the border areas of North Korea.

Today, China is building its capacities in this region. Beijing has revealed its ambition to develop the northeast provinces as a new economic center by building highways and railroads. The Northeast Area Promotion Plan of 2007 includes the Ha-Da Railway, which runs across the northeast region connecting Harbin and Dalian, and the East Border Railway connecting Dalian and Tumen, providing a foundation for the development of the Chinese and North Korean border areas.

Moreover, the Chang-Ji-Tu development zone, which was finalized in 2009, is emerging as a new economic core of the region, linking Changchun, Jilin and the Tumen River.

The problem is how to make the most out of a region that is growing at an astonishing speed.

The northeastern region does not have a harbor that allows access to the East Sea. It takes a tremendous amount of time to reach South Korea, Japan and other points in the Pacific region through the ports of Dandong and Dalian west of the Korean Peninsula.

Moreover, these ports are already saturated and can barely handle the logistics volume they have today. Therefore, China has to advance to the east.

Recently, China’s National People’s Congress reportedly extended the right to use the port of Rajin for another 10 years.

That decision illustrates China’s interests in North Korea. To Beijing, North Korea’s cooperation means integrated access to harbor and business districts. The project includes updating roads between Hunchun and Gunha in China and Wonjong and Rajin in North Korea.

Also, it contains plans to secure the right to develop areas adjacent to the harbor.

In the future, the economic tsunami from China could hit Japan and the Pacific region through the port of Rajin. North Korea is effectively supporting that effort.

Pyongyang has long dreamed of developing Rajin and Sonbong as a special economic district to serve as an international logistics intermediary, a manufacturing center for export goods and for tourism and finance.

However, a sometimes hostile attitude toward its neighbors and the negative reaction to its missile launches and nuclear tests has frustrated Pyongyang’s ambitions.

But North Korea is now changing its tune. It seems to have realized that there is no other way to save the country’s economy than an opening brought about by international cooperation with China.

The clock is ticking.

The inter-Korean relationship has cooled from what it had been.

Pyongyang has to finalize the succession structure and stabilize the economy while Kim Jong-il is still healthy.

According to the timeline it has declared, North Korea has to open the door to become a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Pyongyang hopes to develop Rajin port with the help of China or Russia so that it can play a role as an important center of trade.

This plan will manifest with Kim Jong-il’s possible visit to China, Pyongyang’s possible return to the six-party talks and the designation of eight districts, including Rajin and Sonbong, as “special cities.”

So what can South Korea do at this point?

Should we just sit back and watch the port of Rajin being handed over to China and Russia? A North Korean project under China’s initiative that excludes the participation of the South would be contrary to the development of inter-Korean economic integration.

Losing an important logistics center means giving up a potential economic gain. North Korea, which already relies greatly on China, would become even more dependent on the giant. We need to extend the pan-East Sea route connecting Sokcho, Zarubino and Niigata into Rajin. The overland route between Wonjong and Rajin should function as a main artery, making sure South Korea has as much influence as possible.

We need to resume discussions to open the railway line between Rajin and Hasan, which will connect to Europe through the Trans-Siberian Railroad, immediately. We need to address the economic issue wisely while also dealing with the nuclear issue. I hope we can one day sing about the port of Rajin as we do about Busan.

*The author is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-yun
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