Taking the Tumen River Region: China’s Plan



On 19 December 2016, a historic piece of northeast Asian trading history commenced:

“Thirty trucks carrying specialties of Jilin province, such as frozen corn and dried codfish, passed through the Tonghua international inland port on Dec 19, 2016. They headed for the Dandong port in neighboring Liaoning province to export the goods to South Korea.

The passing of the fleet marked the start of operations at Tonghua port, which was approved by the provincial government in July 2016. Jilin’s local companies can apply to customs in Tonghua, then transport their goods to Dandong and on to more than 160 ports in some 120 countries and regions worldwide.”

With that single mass transit of goods from Jilin Province in China, the Chinese had expanded their reach and influence over northeast Asia to entirely new heights. After all, the Tonghua port is but the start of China’s overall push to permanently tether northeast Asia to its sizable economic might. More ominously, the Tumen River Region of North Korea is a place from which China plans on exerting historic-levels of geopolitical influence and military power into the surrounding region. Dominating the Tumen River Region will confer unprecedented levels of fiscal, economic, and military power that China will need in its “Hundred-Year Marathon” against the United States for primacy of power in the Asia-Pacific.


The Chinese are on a quest for geopolitical and regional dominance. Everything that they have done has centered around expanding the scope and reach of Chinese power. Their ultimate goal is to reassert the Chinese Empire of old (which is one reason why Beijing insists on the world respecting the old Chinese imperial maps, with their pre-colonial borders, such as the Cow’s Tongue map). More than anything, though, the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy and, therefore, its power is inextricably bound up with the notion that only the one-party, neo-Confucian state in Beijing can bring the kind of prosperity that most Chinese have come to expect. If that were to falter; if enough Chinese citizens questioned Beijing’s ability to make good on its promise of economic prosperity, then the old historical patterns of China would reemerge: the dynastic cycle of “peasant” rebellions would consume the land, the central government would increase its grip on power, only to lose in the long-run its new age “mandate of heaven.”

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China’s Nine-Dashed Line (or, “Cow’s Tongue”) map. The red is water that the Chinese claim as their own (under the ancient maps of the Chinese Empire), whereas the blue are the internationally-recognized waters of various southeast Asian states (whose borders were created and adhere to demarcations created by both European and Japanese colonial empires during China’s so-called “Century of Humiliation.”)

So, the Chinese government is singularly focused on not only expanding its sphere of control out across the Asia-Pacific (with longer-term plans of becoming the global ba, or hegemon), but it is obsessed with expanding its “free trade” zones. Thus, China has taken to the Tumen River Region. Dubbed “Asia’s newest, up-and-coming business location” by the North Korean government, the Tumen River Region sits in a geostrategically important part of North Korea. You see, the area sits at the tri-border crossroads of North Korea, Russia, and China. The Tumen River would also allow access to deep water ports into the Sea of Japan–meaning that a country like China would enjoy greater naval access to the overall Pacific Ocean also.

According to the New York Times:

“The tripoint with China, 10 miles north from the mouth of the river, was fixed to the satisfaction of all three parties only in June 2003, when North Korea, Russia and China signed a protocol to that effect in Beijing. North of this point, a curious Chinese salient, sometimes no more than a few hundred feet across, occupies the east bank of the Tumen, following its curves for maybe another 10 miles until it fans out into a broader swathe of Chinese territory. It’s almost as if that salient is China’s attempt to rip through the Russian Bubble Wrap that keeps it landlocked.”

As for the Sino-North Korean border region of the Tumen River, the New York Times elaborates:

“Farther up the Tumen, the border between China and North Korea is not without its problems [6], but its essence is a beautifully simple symmetry. The Sino-Korean border runs through the summit of Paektu-san, a mountain sacred to both Koreans and Manchu [7], and follows the course of two streams that spring from it: the Tumen and the Yalu, which heads west toward the Yellow Sea.”

So, the presence of Paektu-san and its prevalence in both Chinese and North Korean history makes this area one to watch out for, as tensions between the West and North Korea escalate; while China seeks new and innovative ways to expand its reach in the region, and Russia yearns to cling on to that which it has in the Far East.

Plus, Tumen’s proximity to Russia would allow for not only greater diplomatic and trade linkages to exist between  Moscow and Beijing, but it would also allow the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to place strategic forces very near Russia’s relatively weak Pacific coast, thereby checking Russian power in the Pacific–as well as complicating Japanese security.

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Unfortunately for China, the decades-old plan of creating the Tumen River Region Free Trade Area (FTA) has, at times, been stymied by both Pyongyang and Moscow. Whereas Pyongyang is reticent to fully open up their closed, Marxian economy to even China–the Kim regime’s sole lifeline–the Russians, despite their claims of newfound friendship and alliance with China, remain deeply suspicious (rightfully so) over Chinese intentions in their underpopulated, resource-rich Far East.

However, all of that is changing today. And if that doesn’t worry American strategists, then they should all be fired for dereliction of duty.

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Taking Stock of Tumen

With the Kim Regime remaining aloof as to the prospects of finalizing a meeting between the American President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, American, South Korean, and Japanese strategists should keep the Tumen River Region in mind. Irrespective of whether the United States goes to war with North Korea in the near future, the Kim Regime is likely the only thing standing between China’s complete domination of the Tumen River Region. Despite being a quasi-vassal state of China, North Korea still exercises a great deal of independence from their would-be Chinese overlords.

There is little doubt that the young Kim’s first actions as leader in 2012–the vicious murder of his uncle and the massacring of a group of high-ranking North Korean military officers–was the result of Kim’s intentions of removing what he perceived as undue Chinese influence in his government. The assassination of his half-brother in early 2017 was also likely a signal to the Chinese, since the half-brother was likely going to be used by China in a future covert regime-change operation directed against Kim Jong-un.

While Kim most definitely requires Chinese assistance (and, to a lesser extent, Russian help), he also needs to prevent the Chinese from opening his closed economy up too much. A massive Chinese presence in the Tumen River Region might complicate Kim’s grip on power, since he is fully aware of the importance that China places on that area for their regional ambitions. Given the recent history on the part of the Chinese to seek regime change (at least in theory) in order to secure China’s long-term grip on North Korea, Kim is likely going to try to complicate Chinese development plans for the region.

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This 50 meter stretch of water is all that separates North Korea from China in the Tumen River region.

The Tumen River sub-regional economic zone (SREZ) has gotten itself together over the last decade. Copious investments by China on their side of the border with North Korea’s Tumen River area has created the vital infrastructure to convert the Tumen River SREZ into the cash-cow that Beijing knows it can be. From China’s Jilin province, the easternmost portion of China’s ongoing Belt-and-Road Initiative is being realized. In 2015, the Jilin province side of the Tumen River SREZ reached $17.9 billion-worth of import and export volume (that’s a 3.8 percent increase from the previous year). Thanks to its fortunate position within the rising Tumen River SREZ, Jilin was one of nine provinces in China with growing import/export volumes in 2016–a terrible year for China’s economy in recent history (now that times are getting somewhat better in China since then, the trade volume has only amplified in Jilin). Further, Jilin’s growth rate was the third-highest in all of China in 2016.

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Map of Jilin Province, China.

And, it isn’t just in physical trade, as evidenced by the aforementioned Tonghua port business. It’s in the almighty realm of e-commerce. In 2016, the Alibaba Group launched a grand project along with the Jilin provincial government to prop up 200 Jilin-based e-commerce companies. Keep in mind that e-commerce in China is viewed by most analysts–particularly leaders in America’s tech sector–as the greatest relatively untapped market in the e-commerce field ever. In the words of Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, “E-commerce in the USA is the dessert. In China, [it is] the main course.”

As Zhang Zhou outlined in his China Daily article in 2016:

“Cross-border e-commerce business [in Jilin province] totaled more than 1 billion yuan in 2016, 2.5 times the volume of the previous year. At the same time, Jilin introduced investment worth 764.9 billion yuan from outside the province, increasing 12 percent year-on-year, and used foreign capital of $9.43 billion, up 10 percent year-on-year.”

Zhou continues,

“In eastern Jilin’s Hunchun, a land-sea combined freight transportation route opened in May 2015, through which local goods are transported to the port of Zarubino in Russia by train and then to Busan in the ROK by ship.”

And, as Robert D. Kaplan notes in his section on North Korea in “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and the American Interests in the Twenty-First Century,” when driving through South Korea’s coastal areas, all that he saw were Chinese-marked shipping containers. This is the future: a Sino-centric Korean peninsula, in which Chinese trade–and therefore politics–is the dominant force there, and the Chinese military operates with relative impunity in the northern Pacific Ocean–from what will be deep water ports made available to them by whatever government in North Korea exists.

The Tumen River Region is a critical factor in all Chinese designs for dealing with North Korea. And, now that North Korea is aiming to play all three great powers: the United States, China, and Russia off each other, expect Pyongyang to use the Tumen River Region in a bid to force both Beijing and Moscow to hew closer to its geopolitical desires.


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