Cambridge on the Tumen: A Transnational Workshop

A small group of scholars gathered in Cambridge on Friday, May 23 for a conference centered on the Tumen River and a critical sub- region of Northeast Asia which has seen less critical attention than the issues surrounding it might indicate it deserves. Funded by the Beyond the Korean War Project  and including participants from the North Asian Borders Network, the workshop brought together a number of experts.

Among the issues explored at the workshop included migration, environmental protection, border security, development history, landscape, economic exchange, and artistic expression. Today the region is surrounded by a Chinese Yanbian, North Korean North Hamgyong province, and the Russian Far East. All of these areas represented the expertise of the conference, as follows.

The conference began with Dr. Hyun-Gwi Park of Cambridge University, who gave a pessimistic but fascinating summary of the Tumen River development project. The project had been initiated in 1991 with the help of the United Nations but has essentially been put on hold. Dr. Park said that the Rason project, a central element to the development plan, was in the hands fully of the North Korean leadership, which had chosen to “put it to one side rather than completely abandoning it.” The trilateral border region contains a combination of factors which were still potentially very promising for economic development: a combination of cheap labor provided from China and North Korea, Russian natural resources, investment from South Korea and further investment from “the missing but always potential partner,” Japan.

How does one define “the Tumen triangle region?”: It depends upon which cities are chosen as the endpoints; this lesson in geographical geometry was very much in order.

An interesting element in the presentation was North Korea’s role in it: North Korea was described by Dr. Park as the “enigma of the project…both a stumbling block and an essential participant.” The Long view of Qing provincialism and interprovincial competition was then taken, including a discussion of cross-border mobility wherein economic migrants could explore unknown areas and pursue their own economic opportunities. An example of this was ethnic Koreans from China who could go into North Korea without a visa.

The recalling of Qing imperatives in the region brought me back to an old thought: China’s impetus in supporting the Rason project is largely about frustration with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) and feeling almost entitled to sea access from easternmost Jilin.

Russian settlement in the Far East has a long history through which the region can also be profitably investigated. There has ever been a kind of “internal colonization” within Russia; people in the Russian Far East can viewing Moscow through a transnational lens; China is a closer neighbor then Moscow. This world view is, in some ways, a reaction to the central government. Which is not to say that xenophobia does not exist in the Russian Far East, but the notion of Russian nationalism in that region does need to be questioned.

Kim Il-sung embraced the Greater Tumen Intiative in the early 1990s is a means, he thought, of reviving the DPRK’s east coast economy (centered upon Wonsan), but then of course he died in 1994 and this project was set aside again.  Using the west coast of Korea as a transnational counterfoil, it can be seen how goods might thus move from Inchon and up to Dandong and down to Pyongyang, forming kind of a semicircle.

My own paper presented some new research on the question of Chinese-North Korean relations from 1945 to 1949, focusing on the interconnection of Korean Workers’ Party with the Chinese Communist Party. The question of ethnic and national identities were heavily contested at this time, particularly on the Chinese side of the border. The paper looked at several biographies of lower-level officials in Yanbian in 1945 and 1946, and how several went “back” to Korea (some had never been there before) and ultimately participated the Korean War. Even among communist cadre, the legacies of Japanese imperialism and the Manchukuo experiment remained strong. Finally, there lie hidden in various archives and Chinese-langauge memoirs the possibility of alternate histories: there were, after all, several individuals in the post-liberation Yanbian region with an equal biography to Kim Il-song who ended up carving out their own spheres of charismatic militant influence.

The next paper was by Christopher Green, looking at changes in currency evaluation and foreign currency use in the North Korean economy since the 1990s. Green brandished a volume published in Pyongyang in the 1980s (and which he had recently purchased in Yanbian), dealing with issues not normally associated with Kim il song: Finance and economic management. Green thus sought to contextualize the Currency reevaluation of 2002 by asking a simple question: has this happened before? Kim Il-sung, as it turns out, presided over three previous currency re-evaluations — in 1959, 1979, and 1992. In every case, Green observed, these actions had been prepared by notifying the public in advance, providing people with ample time to exchange money, etc.  Clearly, what this context provides was further confirmation that the currency revaluation in 2009 was hastily planned, poorly executed, and done without much regard for past precedent.

John Swenson-Wright, professor of Japanese history at Cambridge, gave comment on the two papers, combining them and showing how they look at North Korea at a local level, finding alternate stories by digging into the archives or economic data and defector testimonies.  In combination with an earlier comment and synthesis by his Cambridge colleague Heonik Kwon, Dr. Swenson-Wright’s comments helped to cap a spirited exchange of ideas and comparative models, before the conference concluded with a viewing of the bracing film “Dumangang.”

 

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