East Asia’s melting pot

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East Asia’s melting pot

“Ah, has he safely crossed it? In this deep night, my husband/is he safely on the other side of Tumen River?” Poet Kim Dong-hwan used the voice of a wretched wife fearing for her husband’s life as he crosses the sea of death and tears to Manchuria in his poem “The Night at the Border.”

The setting of Kim’s epic poem is icy cold these days, although winter has yet to officially arrive. The city of Hunchun at the tip of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s northeastern Jilin Province shares a border with Russia and North Korea. I am here to observe heated logistic activities on the lower part of Tumen River. The night scene at the remote border city was not what I had imagined. The city was lit with bright, colorful signs mixed dizzily in Korean, Chinese and Russian, underscoring the venue as a melting pot. The lower section of Tumen, which straddles China’s Hunchun, Russia’s Hasan and North Korea’s Rajin-Sonbong has turned into a hotbed of logistics in Northeast Asia. Chinese products and Russian natural resources go through the ports to reach South Korea, Japan and other parts of the world. While we are entirely engrossed with domestic affairs - the Sewol ferry tragedy and government employee pension reform - China and Russia are engaged in a tense tug-of-war over dominance in the region.

The driver behind the burgeoning vivacity in the port city had been Northeast China. The region traditionally known as Manchuria flourished under state planning and support, and now serves as an industrial and economic pillar for China, along with Guangdong, the Golden Triangle of Yangtze (referring to Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang) and the Bohai Economic Rim that surrounds Beijing and Tianjin. The regional growth on average outpaced the average Chinese growth by 3 percentage points over the last decade.

But businesses recently faced a setback. The northernmost Dalian port that served as a gateway to the Yellow Sea transport route reached boiling point. The Eastern sea route connecting Hunchun, Rajin and Zarubino Port at the southern end of Primorsky Krai in Trinity Bay, about 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) off the Chinese-Russian border, emerged as an alternative.

China has coveted North Korea’s Rajin port for a long time. It offers safer docking for big vessels than Russian harbors due to its deep water. China also has built an expressway between Hunchun and Rajin and plans to expand the roads by 2015.

The downside is that Pyongyang is unreliable. Recent souring of the relationship also put a damper on the business plan. Beijing shifted attention to the more reliable Russian route as a result, working with Russian authorities to upgrade the railway between Hunchan and Zarunobi.

But the Russian system also leaves a lot to be desired. The distance between Hunchun and the port in the maritime territory in the Russian Far East stretches 63 kilometers. It bears the historic trajectory of An Jung-geun and 11 other famous independence activists who cut off the joints of their fingers in a pledge to resist Japanese colonial rule.

At the end of the Chinese border after a 40-minute drive from Hunchun stood a decent-looking three-story customs building. Another ride took us into Russian territory. The customs office on the Russian side was shabby. It took more than 15 minutes to check one passport and an hour and a half to examine the identities of our group of 20. Without improved efficiency, a logistics hub connecting Korea, China and Russia isn’t likely to succeed.

So far, China and Russia have been eager to develop the area. Since China announced the Tumen Cooperative Development Plan in 2009, it has been investing heavily in the Changji-Jilin-Tumen belt. Russia also included the Tumen delta in its Far East Development Plan with an ultimate goal of connecting the entire Korean Peninsula with the Trans-Siberia Railway via North Korea.

Current sea travel time could be cut in half if cargo from Gangwon is transported on a transcontinental rail system crossing Raijin or Zarunobi to Eastern Europe. Inventory costs would be saved. If the eastern route through the northern border is open, trading would be entirely different.

President Park Geun-hye proposed the so-called Eurasia initiative a year ago. So far, no progress has been made on the front. Sanctions against North Korea since the 2010 Cheonan sinking remain a major stumbling block to the inter-Korean relationship.

Russia recently announced it will invest $25 billion to modernize the North Korean railway. What use are words if actions do not follow? We may end up watching North Korean borders turn into a playing field for Russians and Chinese if we continue to keep to the sidelines.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 31, Page 32

The author is a senior writer of international affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nam Jeong-ho

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