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
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
"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 . …