This post is based on an informal talk I gave about a year or so ago for a professor at Georgetown, as well as some backseat research Yong and myself always are adding to.
The notion of an economically and logistically integrated bloc in North East Asia has been a desired and pursued goal for numerous national actors over the past century. Imperial Japan in particular sought to industrialize and integrate its colonial holdings and dependencies in China and Korea to support the Japanese Home Islands. The Dongbei/Korea/Russian Far East/Mongolia area, sometimes referred to as the Greater Tumen Region or part of the Greater Tumen Initiative, is a massive region known for its mostly untapped mineral wealth (though this is changing) as well as its tense and frustrated politics.
The countries most publically associated with the Greater Tumen Region, at least in the West, are the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea, and Mongolia, as these four players are the most economically active. The obvious fifth player in this region would be the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. North Korea’s border is literally made up, in part, by the Tumen River, so everything about this economic region involves or could involve North Korea. Our friends over at Sino-NK have an excellent project about the Tumen River initiatives very much worth reading.
Integration of the DRPK into a greater Tumen regional economic bloc would likely be profitable for most, if not all, players. With the DPRK’s recent foray into petroleum exploitation with Mongolia, the Russian Fed’s new rail line to Rajin, and the lengthy rumors and discussions of everything from inter-Korean railroads to inter-Korean gas pipes, along with the forgiveness of 90% of the DPRK’s Soviet era debt to Russia, indicate that the DPRK may be slowly integrating into a Tumen regional bloc.
Determining the trade volume and profitability of this venture are are ongoing and possible overwhelming project for us, but in the meanwhile, we’ve worked out some of the theoretical logistical networks that the DPRK would create if it went all-in and opened up for trade and transit. This is an ideal logistical situation that could be worked towards in the future, but is obviously out of reach for the time being.
These maps represent a work-in-progress of a larger analysis of the Greater Tumen economic region, and are to be treated as drafts of future, polished maps and analyses.
This first map is just a simple approximation of the local sea lines of communication. The entire Chinese seaboard and the eastern coast of Japan have massive trade volume. We have elected not to include the Sea of Japan routes as a major SLOC, as it is covered by the massive local trade routes in the next map.
Western Japan has the Niigata-Kitakanbara cargo area and the Kanazawa container ports, which have easy access to the entire Korean and (mostly) ice-free Russian Far East coast, making it a vital hub for any materials heading into or through Japan. Like all major Japanese ports, this area is integrated into the Japanese rail network.
Any cargo bound for the US can pass through the straits near Hakodate, however, and be off towards Hawaii with relative ease.
Vladivostok is the most important Russian port in the region, being (mostly) ice-free and having a large container capacity. Not visible is Nakhodka, a cargo and coal port east of Vladivostok, but too close to be clear in this map. Zarubino is located closer to the DPRK and major Japanese ports, but more food oriented, and doesn’t seem to have significant container capacity. It is still important for food export and import though, so it has been included as a potentially important regional port. The coal port of Posyet has also been visually excluded due to its proximity to Zarubino, though should be included in any Tumen regional bloc.
All of these ports are integrated into the Russian rail networks, meaning that there is a near uninterrupted rail line from all of these ports all the way to London, England.
The Chinese coast is filled with important and high-capacity ports. To name a few, the ports at Tianjin, Dalian, Dandong, and the myriad ports in Hangzhou Bay around Shanghai play an important role in the Tumen region. Even without a Greater Tumen regional bloc, these ports are vital to the Chinese and world economy, and even the DPRK’s trade ships pass regularly through these ports. As well, each port is integrated into China’s rapidly developing rail network, which in turn feeds into the Mongolian and Russian networks, allowing for near uninterrupted rail service all the way to London.
However, the stumbling bloc in this region is the DPRK and access to the ROK. Busan and Incheon are incredibly busy ports, and the ROK economy imports and exports a tremendous amount of containers per year. While the PRC is the ROK’s number one trade partner, and the distance by water is fairly minimal, the constant friction caused by the tense politics surrounding the DPRK in addition to the steep operating cost of ships still makes trade expensive. If the DPRK were to fully integrate into the Tumen bloc in the future, not only could the ROK trade with the PRC over land, but the ROK would have direct rail access to Europe, significantly lowering the cost of long-distance trade.
DPRK inclusion and integration greatly simplifies shipping for the ROK and Japan, greatly minimizing sea-based transportation and allowing for swift overland transport to Europe. With a line from Busan to London, goods that required inputs from Korea and Japan wouldn’t have to hop between so many ports before being shipped to market.
The DRPK likely understands the benefits of integration and, at a minimum, the ability to impose taxes and tariffs on ROK trains running through to the Chinese and Russian rail networks.
As we pull together more trade numbers, we hope to eventually produce a map that includes the trade volume and an estimation of at least some of the cost difference for an overland route from Busan to London, but include some of the energy opportunities that will arise. As the DRPK and HBOil continue their oil deals and the DPRK connects Rajin into the Hunchun area power grid in Jilin, the flow of electricity into the Rajin area and the flow of petroleum and refined products out will be critical, albeit controversial, steps in integrating the DPRK into the region.
Tying Mongolia and the DPRK together will necessarily require infrastructure from the Russian Federation and PRC in the form of roadways, railways, and, possibly in the future, gas and oil pipelines. In addition to the PRC and Russian Fed port deals in Rajin, Mongolia’s investment in oil infrastructure represents one of the highest profile Tumen regional bloc investments, as it requires primary and secondary economic inputs and supports from all the mainland regional actors and, if successful and unopposed by the US, ROK, and UN, could possibly be one of the first cases in decades of major industrial integration of the DPRK with the rest of the region.
Regardless of success, failure, or sanctions, we will continue to refine our currently rough maps and eventually produce a functional logistic and economic integration map of the Tumen region. Definitely an area to keep watch on.