Borderline cases_#1: Hunchun, China: the golden triangle

Feb 17 2019_The 1400 km long border between China and North Korea consists of 2 rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen. Over the past 15 years China has made big efforts to open up this remote border area in Northeast China. The opposite land on the North Korean side is still largely undeveloped. China is North Korea’s gateway to the world. The border has ~15 crossings, predominantly simple railway bridges or traffic bridges, mostly constructed by the Japanese in the 1930’s to 1940s.

Yalu & Tumen border rivers between China and North Korea

China and North Korea signed a border treaty in 1962 to establish the exact dividing line in the rivers. Roughly it runs through the middle of these waters. The treaty also tried to settle the ownership question over a number of islands in the rivers. It is a public secret this border agreement is not undisputed, yet both countries have chosen to not openly discuss it. In some places the Yalu and Tumen rivers are only a few dozen meters wide and very shallow. Parts of these waterways often freeze over in winter. Since the ’90s annually~1000-2000 North Koreans do attempt to illegally cross the river in search of a better life. Some of them are arrested and sent back by the Chinese border guards, others find their way to South Korea via a complex and secretive underground support system inside China.

In June 1994 I made a trip along the Chinese side of this border, which at that time was still quite difficult to reach. My travel experiences will be reflected in a series of subsequent blog posts. Today the first article. If North Korea would ever chose the path of reform, this entire border area could be given a huge boost, especially if current international economic sanctions would be lifted. The (trade) traffic via these border bridges does give an indication of the strength of the (trade) relations between the two countries. Nowadays this can be monitored via satellites, though China and North Korea have refused to give access to Google Streetview.

Hunchun, a new Hong Kong

In the mid-1980s Chinese academics began to promote the idea of gradually implementing the concept of special economic zones, by which Communist China had already successfully introduced free market thinking in parts of the South, to other regions of the country. It was believed the 3 remote, underdeveloped Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang in northeastern China, surrounded by the even poorer Mongolia, North Korea and Siberia, would greatly benefit of such an economic stimulus.

This belief led to the formulation of a plan to establish an economic zone in the vicinity of the three-country corner of China, Russia and North Korea, at the outlet of the Tumen river. It eventually resulted in an initiative for international cooperation supported by the UN (UNDP) in 1991, the so-called Tumen River Area Development Program (TRADP). These forementioned three countries would supply and trade different types of raw materials, agricultural products and manpower in exchange for investments from Japan and South Korea. The Mongolian hinterland would also prosper from this cooperation. The Chinese cities of Hunchun and Tumen should play a crucial role in this transnational initiative, just like the nearby areas on the Russian and North Korean side of the border. Railways and country roads would be interconnected, air connections established and Russian and North Korean seaports turned into free ports. Voila, the birth of a golden triangle.

map of the three country corner between China, North Korea & Russia, indicating the location of Hunchun, Rajin (Rason) and Zarubino harbor © Copyright: VOA
from left to right: the driver of the deputy mayor, next Mr. Yu the deputy mayor and on the far right Mr. Yang photo: June 1994

Maquette 1994

On June 20, 1994 I am sitting in the office of the deputy mayor of Hunchun, Mr. Yu, who enthusiastically talks about the ambitious Chinese plans for this area, not a bit bothered by the fact I am not an investor but just a curious tourist. A few days earlier I had dropped my backpack in a cheap hotel, planning to take a look at the special economic border zone near Hunchun city. Not a particularly attractive city in itself, but interesting nonetheless ‘cos 40% of its ~150,000 inhabitants do have an ethnic Korean background. The hotel receptionist, surprized to see a westerner this far up north, inquired after the reasons for my visit. My answer made her grab the phone immediately: she turned out to be the deputy mayor’s cousin and in no-time an appointment was arranged!

Deputy Mayor Yu’s businesscard
Scale Model of Hunchun’s international economic cooperation borderzone, June 1994:
photo: E.R.

The energetic Mr. Yu, ~40 years old, dressed in a white shirt, grey jacket and a colorful tie, does not want to miss any opportunity to promote his special project. His office is in the middle of the special border zone that can be reached within 15 minutes by car from Hunchun city via a long, straight asphalt road. The economic zone is located on the other side of the Hunchun river that surrounds the city. Hunchun is the most important city in the vicinity of the three-country corner (@ Fangchuan) between China, Russia and North Korea. Yu happily directs me to a scale model while he is flanked by Mr. Yang, a sturdy engineer and board member of Hunchun’s special zone. The model shows the future Chinese area around Hunchun, about 25 km2 filled with high-rise buildings, companies, apartments, shopping centers, etc. The two men take ample time to outline a large-scale, three staged development plan to me. In about 15 years the economies of Russia and North Korea are foreseen to become intertwined with Hunchun’s economic zone, which will eventually cover an area of >100km2.

Mr. Yu predicts Hunchun will become a megacity within 10 years, a new Hong Kong. From a simple import / export hub, this whole region will evolve into the center for high-added value technological cooperation in Northeast Asia owing to the participation of Japan and South Korea….

Starting Phase

At the moment the project is still in its initial stage, focussing on the infrastructure construction around Hunchun. The deputy mayor is very optimistic about the chances Russia and North Korea will fully support and join the project. Discussions are underway, he says, to finally establish direct rail links between the three countries and to open up the seaports for each other. The latter is very important for China because it does not have its own nearby seaport. Moreover, the Tumen river often freezes over in winter. The Hunchun border zone is ~30 km from the sea. The last 17km of the Tumen river forms the border between North Korea and Russia, before it flows into the sea of Japan. The North Korean port of Rason (also called Rajin) occupies a central role in the Chinese plans. No wonder Mr. Yu and Rong express strong hope the North Koreans will fully endorse this international project.

The entrance towards Hunchun International Economic Zone, June 1994 Photo: E.R.

Mr. Yu further claims that around 400 domestic companies already have options on the land. Foreign companies are also said to be very interested. My informal, very friendly meeting ends with a tour around part of the immense terrain, which shows a lot of work still needs to be done. Seeing just a few completed buildings and electrical towers, it is hard to imagine a modern industrial area will emerge in these remote fields in 10 years’ time.

Hunchun international economic zone under construction, June 1994 Photo: E.R.
First office spaces under construction, June 1994. Photo: E.R.
Russian Lada’s, Hunchun Special Economic Zone, June 1994
Photo: E.R.

centre of Hunchun city, June 1994 Photo: E.R.
Hunchun centre, June 1994 Photo: E.R.
Fruit & vegetable shop managed by ethnic Koreans, Hunchun Juni 1994
Photo: E.R.

Hunchun anno 2019

According to Mr. Yu’s original plan Hunchun’s economic border zone should be well beyond phase 3 by now, i.e. integration of the regional economies of China, North Korea and Russia should have been accomplished. However, reality has proven to be obstinate.

The TRADP initiative made little progress in the 1990s: the North Korean regime did not invest in the Rason port area after it had been declared -rather surprizingly- a special economic zone by Kim Il-sung in 1992. The distrust between the participating countries and the numerous (geo) political and ideological conflicts resulted in a general disinterest in the TRADP project. In 2005 the TRADP was renamed the “Greater Tumen Initiative (GTI)”, with a specific focus on 5 sectors: transport, tourism, energy, investment and environment. Member states became China, Russia, Mongolia, South and North Korea, while Japan opted to be just an acting member.

The first intergovernmental bodies to support the GTI decision-making process were established 5 years later. But in the meantime North Korea decided to cancel its membership due to the lack of financial injections by South Korea and Japan. China, the key driving force behind the GTI, saw its hopes to fully exploit its own domestic infrastructure investments around Hunchun by making them part of a more open interregional economic cooperation dashed.

North Korea’s 3rd nuclear test in 2013 led to great irritation in the Chinese government which attempted to get the GTI back on track in order to give interregional trade a boost. The Chinese leader Xi Jinping had just presented his super ambitious plan for a kind of new Chinese silk road (One Belt, One Road Initiative/BRI). It envisions closer international cooperation by connecting Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa through a modern network of logistics and transportation, using (new) roads, (air) ports, pipelines, fiber optics, cyber space etc driven by the Chinese and their investments. The GTI could perhaps even be made part of the broader BRI initiative in Chinese thinking. Yet the new international (economic) sanctions against North Korea threatened to thwart the Chinese ambitions in Northeast Asia.

The meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in June 2018 has given the Chinese new hope. If the relationship between America and North Korea would gradually normalize, sanctions be loosened and Pyongyang be willing to move towards economic reform, the GTI could suddenly get higher priority among all participating countries. Japan and South Korea do recognize the potential of this region after all. Sofar America has been a bystander in all the GTI discussions. Successive US governments probably have seen the GTI primarily as an attempt by China and Russia to reduce US influence in the region. It’s likely Trump would rather use the upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un to bring major bilateral economic benefits to Pyongyang provided the regime would denuclearize. Perhaps the American president is already dreaming of a Trump Tower in Pyongyang…..

Recent developments in the golden triangle

Vice Mayor Yu’s predictions have not been proven completely wrong. Hunchun meanwhile has a modern station and is connected to the high-speed train network in China. An old Buddhist temple was rebuilt in 2001 to brighten up the rather gray city and to stimulate tourism. A dedicated export zone has also been established within the special economic zone: according to recent Chinese figures >65 companies from South Korea, Japan, the US and Russia have settled there. The activity of local enterprises has increased, though they are mostly still active in traditional industries, products and goods. The entire Hunchun economic zone covers more than 25 km2 as per today. However, the transition to high-quality technical production has not been achieved. A new hectic, dynamic and hip Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Shanghai has not emerged on the banks of the Tumen river delta.

China is still in talks with the Russians about extending the high speed train connection to Zarubino and Vladivostok. An exclusive Sino-Russian trade zone has been established within the Hunchun economic zone. There is a fairly good highway between Hunchun and Kraskino on the Russian side of the border. Hunchun’s population has grown to over 250,000 and new highways, bridges and apartments have been erected. Inland ports near Hunchun and the Tumen river have been deepened and modernized. Russian and Korean influences are clearly visible in the streets: products and goods (fish / seafood, drinks, wood) from these countries can be found everywhere in Hunchun. About 400 Russian families live in Hunchun. There are also numerous North Koreans working in Chinese textile factories, in Hunchun’s nightlife and in North Korean restaurants too: the Chinese don’t disclose their actual numbers and working conditions…

In 2003 China obtained the right to sail the last stretch of the Tumen river across the border. The North Korean regime in 2011 also permitted the Chinese to deepen the pier in Rason harbor on the North Korean coast to keep it ice free throughout the whole year. The Russians have had access to the 2 other available piers since 2008. And from Rason an old rail link to the Russian border has been in operation for over decades. Connections, however rudimentary, do exist in this faraway 3 country corner..

But Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions and the subsequent international sanctions have seriously hampered the development of Rason and the Tumen delta. For the time being, the Chinese have decided to take a different approach: they have shifted their interest and money to Zarubino, the Russian seaport. In recent years, Putin has increasingly re-focused his attention to the Russian Far East, showing more willingness to cooperate with the Chinese. For example, the Russians are currently discussing with Beijing the modernization of several port terminals as well as the opening up of several seaports along the Siberian coast (Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Vostochny).

Many obstacles will have to be overcome before Deputy Mayor Yu’s dream of a golden triangle with Hunchun as a pivot can come true. But that Chinese dream is still very much alive. The infrastructure in and around Hunchun to quickly connect China with North Korea and Russia is in place. The Chinese are ready for take off…

zie ook

Hunchun’s new – high speed- train station, with Chinese, Russian and Korean text on the front wall, 2015 (photo © Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)
streetview Hunchun centre 2017
photo: © Wikipedia user – CC-BY-SA-2.5 / Baycrest
Hunchun WTC building on the left
No. 1788 Dongguan Road near Hunchun center, not in operation
Photo: ©, 2019
Hunchun economic cooperation zone, ~2015
Photo: © China Daily
scale model for new business district inside Hunchun economic zone, 2018
photo: ©, feb 2018