[Viewpoint] Preparing 2nd-round northern policy

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[Viewpoint] Preparing 2nd-round northern policy

Northeastern China has been a battleground throughout history. Nomadic inhabitants of the vast plains there and ethnic Chinese with lives rooted in farming along the Yellow Sea clashed and blended over the centuries.

Various tribes and clan kingdoms - the Manchus, Ulchs, Hezhen and Mongols - marched south in search of economic security and cultural richness. Ancient Chinese dynasties fretted over ways to defend their northeastern front because it was important to their rise or fall. The Great Wall of China epitomized ancient China’s edgy defensiveness against the tribes from the northeast.

As I toured the northeastern part of China, I was at once awed by its expansiveness. The 588-kilometer (365-mile) highway between Changchun and Hunchun, crossing horizontally across Jilin Province, was an endless ride along heavy forests and green plains, rich with fertile soil under the summery sun.

Manchuria, a historical name given to the northeastern part of China, refers to three northeast provinces - Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. The area spreads across 790,000 square kilometers (305,000 square miles), four times the size of the Korean Peninsula, with 10 million people. It produces 30 percent of the country’s crops and 13 percent of its flour.

The area also encompasses various underground and forestry resources. It had been China’s biggest manufacturing base for heavy industries before the country opened up and reform took off. And now it has entered a redevelopment stage led by China’s ambitious Changjitu Project.

The Northeast Area Revitalization Plan aims to turn the cities of Changchun, Jilin and Tumen along the Tumen River into a new industrial belt. The success of the project lies with routes to the East Sea. Ports in Dalian are overloaded and uneconomical because they must arrive via railway and other land routes across Manchuria.

Sea routes from the Yanbian industrial cities of Tumen and Hunchun via the North Korean ports of Rajin-Sonbong or Chongjin can provide savings in logistics cost and time. It is the essence of Sino-North Korean economic cooperation that gained impetus through North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China last month. In exchange for China’s financing of development along Yalu River, China has gained access to the East Sea through North Korean ports.

The construction of a highway linking the Hunchun and Rason economic zones started earlier this month and renovation of roads between Tumen and Chongjin is also underway.

From a hilltop in Bangchon, at the end of Tumen River, North Korea, China and Russia can all be viewed. There is a saying in the village that you can hear rooster cries from three different countries.

The Tumen River border between North Korea and China suddenly comes to a stop at Bangchon. From there, the Tumen River empties into the East Sea and is shared by North Korea and Russia.

China is cut off at the end of the Tumen. That is why it has long been keen on attaining sea routes via North Korea. It is now nearly fulfilling its goal. Its East Sea ambition is not due merely to economic reasons. Rights to the East Sea also can influence defensive strategy, a point of concern for Russia and Japan.

Manchuria, which had once been home to our ancient ancestors of the Gojoseon, Goguryeo and Balhae dynasties, had been the epicenter for historical changes in East Asia. Russia and Japan went to war over the area’s economic and strategic value. Security is imperative for China. It is why China is so keen to develop the three provinces in the northeast.

The major stumbling block of China’s project is the lack of security on the Korean Peninsula. To China, the Korean Peninsula is a ticking time bomb.

The 2.2 million ethnic Koreans living in its northeastern provinces also hold the key to the detonator.

Security in Manchuria depends on the direction ethnic Koreans and the two Koreas take regarding unification. China has been fabricating the ancient history of the region as pre-emptive protection against possible explosive consequences.

The road to a unified Korean Peninsula is impossible without security in Manchuria. We must earn China’s trust by supporting the country’s endeavors to stabilize and develop the region through the Changjitu Project. By doing so, we can help stabilize the lives of ethnic Koreans and also benefit from the economic ventures of Korean companies.

At the same time, we must prepare for potential changes in the East Asian order after China gains access to East Sea routes. We cannot do so without improved inter-Korean relations.

Two decades ago, we established diplomatic relations with China and Russia. It was our “northern expedition.” Our next expedition should focus on Manchuria from a strategic and economic viewpoint. But we may be already too late.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Bae Myong-bok
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