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Experts talk over Tumen initiative for regional prosperity

March 19, 2015 - 20:22 By Korea Herald

South Korea’s leading policy experts gathered last week to canvass their blueprints for developing areas along the Tumen River, which they say will allay tension and aid long-term prosperity in Northeast Asia.

Marking the one-year anniversary of Korea Policy Foundation, some three hundred people took part in the symposium, “Development Strategy for the Tumen River Area for Northeast Asia’s Peace and Prosperity,” at the Korea Press Center in Seoul on Mar 12.

Three policy experts presented their views on building a multinational city, establishing supranational cooperation and kick-starting the Greater Tumen Initiative -- a multilateral economic cooperation mechanism involving China, Russia, Mongolia and South Korea.

“The next 100 years for the Northeast Asian community should be based on coexistence and symbiosis,” KPF chairman and former Employment and Labor Minister Yim Tae-hee said in a keynote speech. “Today’s symposium will find intersecting interests and creative solutions for the common future of neighboring countries.”

Panelists speak at the Development Strategy for the Tumen River Area for Northeast Asia’s Peace and Prosperity symposium marking the one-year anniversary of Korea Policy Foundation at the Korea Press Center in Seoul on March 12. (Korea Policy Foundation)

“By participating in the GTI, Korea can materialize President Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative and Eurasia Initiative,” said Na Won-chang, former GTI coordinator and current head of the Eurasian department at the Foreign Ministry. “The organization can develop into a multilateral framework for land and sea transport routes, regional trade and energy supply.”

The GTI was launched in 1992 under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program and called the Tumen River Area Development Program then. Since 2005, the program was renamed GTI and helmed by China, which sought to create an attractive investment destination for energy, tourism and transport sectors and environmental preservation.

In a meeting in Seoul last September, participating countries agreed to elevate the regional body to an international organization by 2016.

North Korea was a member when the GTI was founded in 2005, but exited the union in 2009 citing lack of funding. However, Pyongyang recently showed its renewed interest in the project, referring to the region as “the linchpin” of regional economic integration.

Lee Sang-jun, senior researcher at the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlement and well-known expert on North Korean city planning, made a pitch for a regional development strategy by enlarging existing projects underway in the area.

“Jump-starting and augmenting projects in the Tumen River area will restore Korea’s lost continental identity and facilitate integration into Eurasia,” Lee said.

“Once a multistakeholder mechanism is established and public infrastructure such as railways, roads, electrical lines and natural gas pipelines are built, we will be able to elevate the cooperation up a notch.”

The area has long been underdeveloped and isolated despite its strategic value, experts point out. But in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest emanating from shifting geopolitical conditions ― China’s growing clout, Russia’s economic woes and South Korea’s transcontinental ambition.

“It is critical for Korea to preemptively secure a foothold in the supranational cooperation mechanism to keep China’s self-aggrandizing position in check,” Lee said. “We can do that by broadening the current bilateral cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang or Moscow and Pyongyang to trilateral schemas involving Seoul, and ultimately to a multinational body encompassing all regional powers.”

Lee proposed expanding the Rajin-Khasan project ― a border area enterprise aimed at refurbishing North Korea’s northeastern city of Rajin into a logistics hub and linking it with Russia’s Khasan through the Trans-Siberian Railway ― to elicit participation of Korea, China, Mongolia and Japan.

Russia, for its part, has pushed its own “pivot to Asia” agenda in recent years, squeezed by Western-led sanctions and plunging petroleum prices. In an effort to stamp its footprint in Russia’s eastern edges and venture into the Asia-Pacific, Moscow has actively garnered Seoul’s support for joint investment in the Russian Far East and North Korea.

Russia’s Far East region holds vast reserves of energy and mineral resources and ample agricultural production capacities for the soaring East Asian economies, analysts say. Russia’s trade turnover with Northeast Asian economies was nearly $150 billion in 2013, with China accounting almost $90 billion.

Kim Seok-chul, a renowned architect and chairman of the presidential commission on architectural policy, advocated building an international city in the Tumen River area.

“The overarching yardstick of separating modern societies has been the nation-state armed by the military-industrial complex,” Kim said. “What I am proposing is going beyond nations ― building a humane community based on aspirations of peace and recognition of otherness.”

Highlighting potentials for combining Russia’s energy sources, China’s food supplies and underground resources, and North Korea’s labor and rare minerals, Kim suggested erecting a multinational port city pairing with Rotterdam, Netherlands.

To be at the center of the transcontinental trade, Kim said, the harbor should be open to the East Sea and the Pacific and connected with the Trans-Siberian Railway and Trans-Mongolian Railway.

By Joel Lee (