Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Signs of hope for North Korea along the Tumen River

Reading Time: 5 mins

In Brief

To a casual observer, looking across the narrow Tumen River into North Korea, it’s perhaps not easy to appreciate the significance of this part of the world. This 520 kilometre river forms the border between China, Russia and North Korea, and has rarely made the front pages of newspapers, but the region was recently described as a ‘dead border’. The Tumen River is probably best known as an escape route for North Korean refugees who cross the ice in winter, trying to evade the military on both sides.. Yet there have recently been some positive signs that the Tumen river may be able to become a regional hub.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the UNDP’s Tumen River Area Development Programme (and now the Greater Tumen Initiative) has aimed to enhance economic cooperation and drive political and security cooperation; yet investment and economic integration has been slow, and bilateral tensions have prevented political buy-in.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Following UN criticism of its nuclear testing in 2008 North Korea declined to renew its membership of the organisation, and membership is now limited to China, Russia, Mongolia and South Korea.

Trade and investment are at the heart of ambitions to develop the Tumen River area. Flowing from the Sea of Japan to several hundred kilometers into Manchuria, better port and rail infrastructure would create a shorter and cheaper route from East Asia to Europe than the current overland rail lines or sea route which runs from Dalian around the Korean Peninsular and through the Sea of Japan. The hinterland surrounding the Tumen River is also one of the world’s last great land resource frontiers, with rich reserves of oil, timber, coal, minerals, and an abundance of farmland and fresh water.

North Korea is of central importance in all of this. The Tumen River borders North Korea’s Rajin-Sonbong region, an undeveloped backwater a long way from Pyongyang. Rajin-Sonbong has been the focal point of periodic efforts by Pyongyang to experiment with economic reforms since it named the area a free economic trade zone in late 1991; as the northern-most ice free port in Northeast Asia, it is an attractive transit point for the shipment of goods to landlocked neighbours. For China, Rajin port is seen as a future logistics hub, with initial plans to export Chinese coal to Southeast Asia and Japan. With economic growth in China’s northeastern provinces even stronger than the national average- official figures put economic growth in Jilin province in 2009 at 13 percent, and a 16 percent increase in foreign investment- there is plenty of capital around to invest in the Rajin Port.

Kim Jong Il’s December 2009 visit to Rajin suggested renewed interest in attracting investment to the region. In October 2009 Premier Wen Jiabao led a high level delegation to Pyongyang to discuss heightened levels of economic engagement. In October 2010, together with officials from China’s three northernmost provinces, Zhou Yongkang, ranked ninth in China’s politburo, visited Pyongyang. This trio met with the party secretaries from the four provinces which adjoin China across the Tumen and Yalu Rivers. A week later, one of North Korea’s rising stars led a delegation to China, with provincial leaders again prominent. Aged only 53, Mun Kyong-dok is a new politburo member and holds the key job of party secretary for Pyongyang. On October 16 Zhou Yongkang welcomed them in Beijing, noting that ‘the first time that the secretaries from all the WPK provincial and municipal committees have visited China’ and that ‘I wish that you will expand exchange with various Chinese regions you’re visiting.’

These visits have been accompanied by some other interesting developments. South Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo reported that North Korea has decided to extend the lease terms of two islands to Chinese companies for the establishment of a free trade zone. Both islands are located on the Yalu River, which constitutes the northwestern boundary between North Korea and the northeast region of China. Lü Chao, director of the Korean Research Center at China’s Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences noted that ‘it is likely that the two islands will be developed into a border trade zone that can help improve the lives of the locals and be conducive to regional stability.’

Recently, a market selling North Korean goods opened in Tumen. The market is viewed as part of efforts to enhance cross-border commerce and provides an avenue for North Koreans to earn Chinese currency. A similar market was trialed in 2005 but was shelved following an underground nuclear test. This new source of trade is at least an important step symbolically, and points the way towards greater economic engagement between China and North Korea. This has been accompanied by a surge in numbers of North Koreans working legally in China- most recently, 100 workers started at a plastics factory in Tumen, and nearby Dandong city has commenced the process of bringing in 1000 North Korean workers.

So what is the broader significance of all this? Well, the area has an important role to play in reducing North Korea’s economic isolation. Closer links between China and North Korea could push North Korean economic reform along the lines of the Chinese model, which Hu Jintao has encouraged. Increased economic engagement may also give China greater leverage over North Korea, with regards for instance to getting North Korea back to the Six Party talks table. In a recent article Geoffrey See noted the potential relationship between economic progress and broader political and strategic progress. Shifting from the macro to the micro, economic development in the Tumen River area if handled correctly can only be a good thing for the millions of people in the border regions who struggle away in differing levels of poverty and who stand to benefit from enhanced access to food, goods, currency and jobs.

Sam Byfield graduated with a Master of Strategic Affairs from the ANU in 2004, and was recently one of 15 Australians to participate in the inaugural Australia China Youth Dialogue.

Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.