Yongusil 89: One River, Three States in Asian Perspective Special Issue

By | December 19, 2016 | No Comments

The PRC customs house at Tumen, deep in the Tumen Triangle and squarely in the analytical gaze of this special issue of Asian Perspective. | Image: Sino-NK

2016 has been an unusual year, one in which North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and an orbital rocket launch. This caused analysts to once again interrogate the effectiveness of economic sanctions as a way of circumscribing undesirable behavior. Among the common reasons given for why sanctions have been ineffective in the case of North Korea is the fact that China and Russia continue to sustain economic ties across the Yalu and Tumen rivers. As we move toward a new year, Asian Perspective provides readers with a wealth of interesting insights into the economic realities of the region, where China, North Korea and Russia’s borders converge. In particular, a special issue on “The Tumen River Triangle as the Borderland of Northeast Asia” takes an interdisciplinary view of the geopolitical significance of the Tumen River basin.

Guest edited by Dr. Hyun-Gwi Park, a researcher in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge, the issue gives special attention to Russia’s role in the economic life of the Tumen River region, which is appropriate given the relative lack of coverage of North Korea-Russia relations. While the lion’s share of North Korea’s external commerce is conducted with China, Russia also plays a not insignificant role in the economy of the DPRK, and especially Russia’s ability to use economic measures against the North. As noted in the Introduction to the Special Issue, the 40th issue highlights how the area is critical for Russia’s ambition to be an equal power to the US in East Asia.

A common theme found throughout this volume is that of the discrepancy between elites in national capitals and the populations living in the borderlands. Central governments, particularly those of Russia and North Korea, fail to consider the needs of the border populations when planning development projects, and furthermore then also fail to effectively implement their economic policy programs. This means that the populations of border regions are often left to their own devices, becoming more dependent on cross-border trade than central planning. Given that there is nothing particularly unique about the analysis of capital-elite vs. provincial, the juxtaposition in a single volume from the perspective of multiple countries provides an excellent basis for developing further research in this direction.

Hyun-Gwi Park’s “One River, Three States: The Tumen River Triangle and the Legacy of the Post-Socialist Transition” focuses on the Tumen River Area Development Project (TRADP), which after lackluster participation from South Korea (and an utter lack thereof from Japan), became the Greater Tumen Initiative (GTI) in 2005. Although China took an amplified role in the project, the GTI failed because of a lack of transnational cooperation, mostly from North Korea and to a lesser extent Russia. In the cases of Russia and North Korea, the article asserts, both countries suffer from a sense of being torn between two greater geopolitical poles. In Russia’s case, it continues to suffer from its centuries-long perception of being caught between Europe and Asia. Compounding matters is the pervasive sentiment among residents of the Russian Far East that they have been neglected by Moscow. On the interstate level, feelings of regionalism among people living in the Russian Far East made it difficult for Beijing and Moscow to cooperate on the GTI as well. In North Korea’s case, the biggest stumbling block to GTI is the continued division of the Korean Peninsula, as well as perceptions of being caught in a push-pull between China and Russia, both of which situations have played a strong role in North Korea’s politics.

In “Charisma in a Watery Frame: North Korean Narrative Topographies and the Tumen River,” Robert Winstanley-Chesters emphasizes the role of the Tumen River in the historic narrative of North Korea’s struggle, starting with the saga of Korean guerrillas fighting to liberate the Korean peninsula from Japanese rule. Winstanley-Chesters’ research draws heavily upon North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Byung-Ho Chung and Heonik Kwon as well as works by Cosgrove, Castree, and Braun for a piece based upon how landscape plays into North Korea’s “charismatic politics,” using “scaling” to mark interaction between geography and the role of narrative in forming the national psyche in North Korea. An example of the data Winstanley-Chesters uses is Kim-il Sung’s crossing of the Amnok (Yalu) River, which takes on a quasi-mythological tone (having become the subject of some of the earliest visual arts in North Korea) despite the raw fact that crossing the Amnok was a common and not in the least bit remarkable event for Korean independence fighters, and indeed for Koreans in general.

Building on his earlier work on Sino-North Korean borderland economics, Christopher Green attributes increased food security to the growing possession of foreign currency by ordinary North Korean citizens, which helps mitigate the impact of market inflation. In “Sino-North Korean Border Economy: Money and Power Relations in North Korea,” Green takes care to explain an economic concept in a way that is easy for non-economists to understand. In order to illustrate the connection between inflation and the possession of external currency, the price of rice is used as a metric to determine general inflation in the DPRK, with two domestic factors (production and distribution) as well as two “international” factors (exchange rates and border dynamics). The main question is not whether North Korean citizens are using foreign currency (for there is no doubt that foreign currency usage, despite being illegal, is becoming more widespread in the DPRK), but rather the underlying reason why. Green cites the increasing commonality of using Chinese currency in North Korea’s borderlands (termed “Yuanization”), which represents a divergence between the elites in Pyongyang and economic actors in the borderlands. The report details three “exogenous shocks,” in 1992, 2002 and 2009, which are, in the Green’s view, what spurred the acquisition of foreign currency. A substantial amount of the data was gathered from interviews from DPRK defectors.

Covering the Russian perspective are Angeina S. Vaschuk and Anastasia P. Konyakhinam. In “Modernization of the Khasanskii Raion of the Russian Far East: Potential, Problems and Perspectives,” the authors begin their analysis with an assessment of Russia’s goals in developing infrastructure in the Tumen River region. It asserts that one of the reasons why initiatives such as the Primorye 2 were not successful was because of a lack of political will in Moscow, driven in part by risk aversion stemming from the potential for conflict in the region, a point that underscores Russia’s shared fear with China regarding the outbreak of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Other factors that derailed hopes for the successful implementation of infrastructure projects in the Russian section of the Tumen River region include a lack of coordination among various entities, particularly as concerns private-public partnerships, as well as technological deficiencies. Echoing the sense of regionalism and disengagement from Moscow cited in Park’s “One River, Three States,” the article also considers the divergence between Moscow and the Russian Far East concerning the notion of “modernization,” asserting that the central government in Moscow has created templates for “modernizing” a region, but not only falls short of actually implementing them, but also fails to consider local realities and the differences between disparate regions of Russia.

Lastly, Ed Pulford in “From Earth to Ocean: Hunchun and China’s Ambivalent Maritime Past” analyzes the role of the sea (and access to it) in Hunchun, China. Hunchun suffers from a unique existential crisis, and as a landlocked city in China that is both close to Russia and North Korea as well as laying in proximity to the sea, it experiences a double-narrative in terms of its relation to the sea, for on the one hand it wants access for practical purposes, yet its proximity to two other countries allows for an “exotic” tourist experience to take place. Brief linguistic analysis is provided in the use of the Chinese morpheme yang, used to denote “foreign” things, with an analysis of socio-political views of yang products as both signs of China’s lack of sovereignty as well as symbols of progress. Finally, the significance of yang throughout the Communist era, as related to Hunchun’s prospective openness to the sea, receives treatment as well, culminating in Hunchun as a symbol for China’s engagement with the wider world. Pulford argues, in fact, that Hunchun can be used as a “barometer” for measuring China’s ambitions for greater access to the sea.

Overall, this special issues of Asian Perspective provides useful insight into a region where several important Asian countries meet. Both individually and collectively, the pieces offer views of the Tumen River region from a variety of analytical and disciplinary viewpoints. Some of the research papers focus primarily on single-country issues within the region, while others are cross-border in nature. Yet all of them, much to their credit, cogently analyze the region while not getting bogged down in larger narratives of great power geopolitics. The extensive use of field research and interviews make the pieces highly accessible, and grant us firsthand insights that could not be gathered electronically from afar.