North Korea and Beyond: An Alternative Vision of Northeast Asia

December 28, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaChinaAsiaTrumpOBOREconomicsBRI

North Korea and Beyond: An Alternative Vision of Northeast Asia

A recent first-hand experience through Northeast Asia reveals that economic progress and development is underway—and that the region has a future beyond the specter of war.


Seoul seems calm enough. People ask if the next war will start with a “tweet storm.” At the magnificent Korean War Memorial museum, one can study a full-size replica of the fascinating Turtle Boats that saved Korea from Japanese invaders four centuries ago and then take a picture with nationalists promoting South Korea’s island dispute with Japan. It almost makes a pleasant distraction from the dreaded sword of Damocles hanging over the city. Dining with an American soldier based there, we discussed if his new gas mask would actually work against a North Korean chemical weapons attack. With a fatalistic nod, he observed that it didn’t actually matter anyhow since just about every person in Seoul would be a casualty of conventional artillery attack within a matter of minutes in the event of a military conflict.

From the familiar vantage point of Jingshan Park in Beijing, one can look south over the shimmering yellow roof tiles of the Forbidden City. The view is enhanced by sun glinting off the icy moat surrounding the ancient fortress. This most classic of North China panoramas is only interrupted by the exotic bulbous, white figurine of a giant stupa that towers of Beihai Park to the west. One is immediately reminded that the peoples of North Asia mixed considerably: the contemporary capital of China was actually founded by the Mongols [元朝] and was later ruled for nearly three hundred years in the final dynasty by the Ching [清朝], Manchurians who did not consider themselves Chinese. On a recent trip through Manchuria that also took me across borders into the Russian Far East, one could behold all these identities and still come away encouraged that there might be an alternative vision for Northeast Asia that does not include catastrophic war and militarized (nuclear) rivalry.



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A 2017 edition of the Chinese academic journal Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies [俄罗斯东欧中亚研究] offers a rather encouraging glimpse into one key part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor [中蒙俄经济走廊]. According to this rendering by an (ethnic Mongolian) Chinese researcher at the University of Inner Mongolia, that corridor constitutes one of four such major parts of the BRI—the others being the corridor into Southeast Asia, the corridor into Central and South Asia, as well as the corridor that will be the “new Asia-Europe land bridge.” As it is explained, the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC), however, will constitute “the most important breakthrough for China’s opening along the northern vector” [是中国向北开放最重要的突破口].

The effort first kicked off with a dramatic trilateral summit in September 2014. The initiative is timely in that it might benefit from the Kremlin’s policy of “turning to the East” [поворот на восток]. Mongolia is seeking to expand its trade and transport profile. Meanwhile, Beijing is looking for ways to stimulate growth and improve livelihoods through its “rust belt” in the Northeast. Your Dragon Eye column author got a good glimpse of new investments reflecting these determined efforts on this recent trip, whether they were the dazzling bridges that have transformed Vladivostok or the impressively efficient subway system that has been just completed in the northeast China metropolis of Changchun.

The article makes a cogent case for “sub-regionalism” as a rather new and effective trend in international economic development. Elaborating a theoretical basis for the movement, the author explains that the approach is based on openness, inclusiveness, pragmatism and above all, flexibility. There are “lower planning requirements,” [安排要求不高] and “informal cooperation” [非正式性的合作] is the norm. Geography plays a key role in these efforts, so that initiatives most often bring together nations sharing a river system, a mountain range or a certain sea area.

This analysis suggests that thirty-two discrete projects have been approved for the CMREC, of which about one-third are related to transport. The economic corridor has a general goal to improve interconnectedness, and more concretely to lower the time and costs of shipping and transportation. Regarding the progress to date, it is noted that there are now nine transit points connecting the borders of Mongolia with the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. Trucking remains the dominant mode of transport in the area for the time being, and a significant milestone was achieved in mid-2016 when a truck convoy took up the new tri-country highway that connects from the Chinese port of Tianjin all the way to Ulan Ude to the east of Lake Baikal in Siberia. That was a significant enough achievement to merit a special issue of the Chinese journal Transport Construction and Management [交通建设与管理].

But the area will be truly transformed when China’s already impressive net of rails are extended much further afield. There is an upgrade in the works for the Trans-Siberian [西伯利亚大铁路] line that connects Beijing to Moscow via Ulan Bator. The aim is apparently to bring this trip of 7,000km and seven days to just two days of travel. That could be a slightly chimerical ambition, at least for the near term, but the corridor initiative envisions both western and also eastern wings. This Chinese analysis talks in some detail about two rail lines, both of which would end in the Russian Siberian city of Chita. One would be a more central route, originating in the Chinese city of Jingzhou (not far from Shenyang), while another would link the new Tumen Line that originates in Hunchun (on the border with both Russia and also North Korea) and goes through Changchun. The prospect of a dense and modern transport web across not only Northeast China (as already exists) but then spread across the Russian Far East and parts of Mongolia does indeed present a tantalizing vision of a cosmopolitan, sophisticated and indeed peaceful Northeast Asia. That vision received a boost this month when it was announced that China and Russia are opening a joint high-speed rail (HSR) research center in Moscow. A November 2017 article in Global Times noted with some evident pride that President Vladimir Putin had recently acknowledged that 80 percent of foreign investment in the Russian Far East over the last two years has come from “Chinese friends.” The Russian president has come around to prioritizing trade links with China, perhaps partially inspired by Peter the Great, who 320 years ago this month, from his historic Amsterdam sojourn no less, decreed that local Russian leaders “who hindered caravans en route to China were to be severely fined.”

One of the highlights of my recent trip was the extraordinary rail excursion down along the Tumen River on that particular Chinese HSR line completed in late 2015. With so many tunnels plunging through the steep peaks not too far from the famously beautiful sacred Chinese mountain area of Changbaishan [长白山], it is no wonder that some have described the line as China’s most beautiful HSR. That line also offers the unique ability to peer across the Tumen River at many points and look directly into North Korea. Contrary to expectation, there were no soldiers nor fortifications visible, and not even any border guards or fences—just a peacefully flowing river, fields, quiet border towns and mountains. Journeying north across the Chinese border into Russia near Slavyanka, one saw something quite similar and even more striking: giant military bases now abandoned due to the demilitarization agreement signed over a decade ago between Beijing and Moscow. The quiet on this northern flank of North Korea, despite the obvious international crisis that continues to boil, makes an extraordinary contrast with the din of military exercises and war preparations on the southern flank.

It is undoubtedly good news that the major powers still are able to reach for a modicum of cooperation in increasing economic pressure on Pyongyang, as occurred last week. Yet the focus on additional pressure must simultaneously be accompanied by positive inducements if there is to be any hope of success. Over the course of 2017, the United States has seemed to be nearly simultaneously on the brink of war; not only on the Korean Peninsula, but in Syria, Ukraine, the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea too—not to mention the Taiwan powder keg. Even as these dangerous crises teeter on the edge, foolishly overextended forces operating under a dubious legal construct were recently sacrificed in Niger—a place Americans did not even know they had soldiers deployed. Our founding fathers are sadly spinning in their graves. They did not exit the British Empire only to become the British Empire—permanently in or on the verge of a state of war in every region of the globe.

Let us hope that 2018 is more peaceful, with a renewed emphasis in U.S. strategy on quiet and practical diplomacy, patient negotiations and dialogue, a tolerance for diverse political and social systems, as well as a purposeful focus on economic development (not least at home) that concretely benefits people’s lives. These approaches are all on display in the northwestern part of Northeast Asia—an area once riven by military rivalry. Americans are well sick of interventions gone horribly wrong in the name of “values” and “credibility.” And the most recent train accident in Washington State is yet another sad reminder of how the immense resources squandered in the last decades could have been put to better use.