If the political atmosphere between China and North Korea may at times be changeable, the two neighboring countries have been strengthening their economic cooperation steadily and substantially, particularly across the Tumen River. Some of the South Korean media saw political significance in the postponement of the official launches of the Hwanggeumpyeong and Hunchun-Raseon projects last month, but groundbreaking took place only about 10 days later in the two locations.
Speculations had it that Kim Jong-il, dissatisfied with the Chinese leaders’ lukewarm response to his request for large-scale food and energy aid during his week-long visit to China, called off the groundbreaking ceremonies. Yet, officials of the two countries had been preparing for the launch of the two biggest cooperation projects in years, one at the eastern end and the other at the western end of the border, though in a more low key way than expected.
In the Hwanggeumpyeong islet on the Yalu (Amnok) River, a large number of Chinese and North Korean workers and dignitaries attended the groundbreaking ceremony on June 8 for the tourism and industrial development of the North Korean-held delta on the Chinese border. Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, who also controls Pyongyang’s external business, represented the North and from the Chinese side was Minister of Commerce Chen Deming. Chen and Jang then flew to Yenji in the Yanbian Korean autonomous province the following day and traveled to Raseon across the Tumen to see the commencing of the 53 kilometer Hunchun-Raseon road project and the construction of a cement plant.
China has pushed these “joint projects” as part of its “Chang(chun)-Ji(lin)-Tu(men)” development plan, which was announced in November 2009, aiming to turn the vast northeastern region into a major industrial and logistics center like Shenzhen in the south. The Changli group of China has earlier won the right for exclusive use of Pier No. 1 in Rajin Port. Rajin in the Raseon special economic zone will be a focus of the Chang-Ji-Tu plan as the maritime outlet for products from the region.
Political fluctuations would hardly deter the progress of development projects in the area around the Tumen River estuary, where the territories of China, Russia and North Korea meet. It is necessary for South Korea’s big corporations to pay closer attention to the Tumen River basin, considering that their major investment in the region would earn them significant leverage on the North Korean economy in the future.