Yongusil 36: Tumen Triangle Symposium

By | May 28, 2014 | No Comments

The idyllic Cambridge University | Image: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

The idyllic Cambridge University | Image: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

Hosted within the Division of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, the Beyond the Korean War project is a multi-national research project funded by the Academy of Korean Studies and headed by Professor Heonik Kwon. It navigates an analytic space replete with fluidities and diffusion. Geographically, the landscapes of the Korean Peninsula and its surroundings, while echoing topographically this liminality, are determinedly and categorically bordered. Rivers such as the Yalu and the Tumen have served as chasms across which passage is restricted and prohibited and through which exchange and transaction is impossible. As the Cold War status quo began to crumble along with the Soviet Union (whose territory abutted the Tumen for only a few miles), possibilities and projects aiming to break these prohibitions and rehabilitate connections across the river began to develop. More recently, changes in geo-politics and the economic rise of both China and South Korea coupled with the ambitions of the Putin government in the Russian Federation have conspired to radically increase the potential importance of the Tumen region and the river’s place as a vector or route for economic and capacity development.

A gathering of interested and affiliated academics met at Clare Hall, Cambridge University on May 23, 2014 for a symposium organized by both Beyond the Korean War and Professor Caroline Humphrey’s “Where Rising Powers Meet: China and Russia at their North Asian Border” project. The symposium-cum workshop “Tumen Triangle in Northeast Asia” represented a concerted effort to grapple with the opacities, diffusions, entries, blockages, and flows present through the historical, political, cultural, and topographic life of the Tumen region.

Hyun-gwi Park of Cambridge University recounted the development and disappointed afterlife of regional diplomatic connections and projects surrounding the Tumen. Such projects have been stymied by circumstance as much as they have been promoted by possibility, a feature shared by the “twin” cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe–urban and political spaces which face each other across a similar river: the Amur. Franck Bille, also of Cambridge University, recounted the dreams and aspirations of both, before noting the impact of globality and economic transformations in Heihe, which have left its Russian counterpart seemingly marooned on the opposite bank. Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Sino-NK’s Director of Research and Post-Doctoral Fellow of the Beyond the Korean War Project, examined the construction and bordering of topographic elements within the Tumen region, especially the river itself, in historical revolutionary historiography, narratives from which North Korea’s current Kim dynasty draws distinct and acute authority.

The region’s historical narratives were subject to further consideration and exploration by Dr. Adam Cathcart of the University of Leeds, in a paper investigating the transnational nature of military flow across the region during the immediate period following liberation from Japanese colonial power. Just as borders and polities began to change, so too were national conceptions and nationality itself subject to flux. Elements of North Korean historiography and current geo-political narrative were then contextualized in the deep past, in particular the issue of refugee/defector returns from the People’s Republic of China. Uradyn Bulag of Cambridge University gave a fascinating presentation on border and refugee policy between Manchu China and Imperial Russia; his vivid descriptions of literal decapitations at the border give the other participants both food for thought and a wider frame in which to cite their analyses of such issues in the future.

Christopher Green, now a doctoral candidate under the supervision of Professor Remco Breuker at Leiden University, brought the workshop into a much more contemporary era of flux, considering the nature of economic transfer and currency flow across the Tumen between China and North Korea with a well evidenced paper entitled “Yuanization.” Finally, Mark Morris of Cambridge University helped the workshop visualize the cultural representation of the Tumen and its border and bordering topography in an intriguing presentation of recent Korean films featuring the river, its communities, and its people.

Just as the Tumen and its geographic nature as a distinct element of punctuation within the East Asian context, both blocks connection and supports potential economic and political development, so academic divisions have hampered progress in this area. This content rich workshop in its bringing together of two distinct, theoretically bordered academic communities, could serve a potential initial moment of connectivity between the two. Perhaps only reframing the Tumen river and its region within a wider regional context can allow a holistic and full analysis of its potential to be undertaken? This intriguing workshop could well be the initiator to that process.

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