Asian Neighbors Plot New Hub Plans for Economic Development of Tumen River Turn on Overcoming History of Strife. ASIAN COMMUNITY

Article excerpt

JUST to float in a raft down this river in the hinterlands of Northeast Asia would not be easy, even for a Huckleberry Finn. The sand bars are as wide as the water that flows in this oversized creek.

Yet during the last two years, six nations with about one-third of the world's population have talked of turning the Tumen River into the nucleus of a new economic region, as if it might be another Rhine or St. Lawrence Seaway, a channel of commerce and civilization.

"Maybe another Hong Kong can grow here," says Wang Yusheng, deputy president of China's Asian-Pacific Institute.

Such dreams rest not so much on the Tumen's size as on its central location in Northeast Asia. This region, once rife with wars, could blossom with trade if the nearby nations warm up to each other in a post-cold-war world.

"If it had not been for the conflict and strife in this area during the last century, Northeast Asia could have rivaled the European Community as an economic power," claims Prof. Cho Lee Jay, vice president of the East-West Center in Honolulu.

The delta of the 360-mile Tumen River serves as a boundary between China, North Korea, and Russia. The river itself flows into the Japan Sea (known as the East Sea to Koreans). The ports of Niigata in western Japan, Pusan in South Korea, and Vladivostok or Nakhodka in the Russian Far East are all within reach.

Regional planners and scholars have been studying how to take advantage of the geographic proximity of these ports. Most of the port cities have been under-utilized "back doors" to their respective nation's economy during the cold war.

These planners point to the potential of combining the massive resources of Siberia, the cheap labor of northeastern China, and the technology and capital of Japan and South Korea. Land-locked Mongolia, too, is eager to use the Tumen as a trade outlet.

At various conferences, the six nations have moved closer on regional trade. "It's a long process to get these countries to sit down at one table," says Mark Valencia of the East-West Center. "What we are trying to do is to build a community. It takes a lot of kicks of the can to get it down the road."

The United Nations Development Program has designed the most elaborate plan for the Tumen region. The idea, says UNDP engineering consultant Aage Holm, "is based not on existing conditions but on future possibilities." A rough-guess cost for infrastructure in the Tumen area, he says, is $30 billion.

"This is not a crazy dream. It's absolutely possible," Mr. Holm stated at a conference of Tumen-area advocates in North Korea's capital this month.

The fact that communist-run North Korea opened its doors to such a conference, allowing about 145 Japanese, South Koreans, Americans, and others to visit the Tumen River, is seen as an example of how once-icy regional relations are quickly melting.

"This area has been like a big black hole," Holm says, "but now all the nations have opened it up . …