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[Opinion] The Border of the Tumen River

Posted August. 08, 2008 06:26,   


The Tumen River originates from Mount Baekdu, flowing into the East Sea and bordering China’s Jilin Province and Russian Far East. Nokdun Island is by the river’s estuary. The small island is effectively under Russian rule but is Korean land. Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin ruled the island for three years from 1587. He retreated when the Jurchens attacked the island in his first year, but defeated them in the Battle of Nokdun Island the following year and reclaimed the island.

The island was listed as Joseon territory on Daedong Yeojido, a map of Korea made by Korean cartographer Kim Jeong-ho. Immediately after the second Opium War in 1860, however, the land was handed over to Russia after China’s Qing Dynasty ratified the Treaty of Beijing with Britain, France and Russia. The incapable Joseon Dynasty did not know this. Joseon Emperor Gojong even ordered Eoh Yoon-jung, who was responsible for controlling the northwest region, to take good care of the island. Korean farmers made the barren land fertile and lived on the island until 1937. The name of the island means “deer + hill + island” in pure Korean.

If the farmers’ descendants had been competent and powerful, they could have recovered the island under international law, which does not recognize border treaties signed under imperialism. North Korea accepted the Treaty of Beijing when it signed a border treaty with the former Soviet Union in 1990. Pity that North Korea chants slogans such as a “strong nation” or “juche (self-reliance)” while it cannot safeguard its own land. Four years ago, The Dong-A Ilbo ran the series “Disputes over Our Land” that clearly showed plowed fields on Nokdun Island, sites where houses used to stand, and broken pieces of jars. Two years later, Russia built banks along the coast and turned it into a military base.

Since the end of last year, North Korea and Russia have been redrawing their border that spans 17.5 kilometers along the Tumen River. The river could be subject to dispute because the land changes depending on the water level. The key in effect is who rules the land. Russia has planted willow trees since 2003 and built banks since 2005 to expand its land. North Korea could give up land in the river’s estuary to attract Russian capital to the Najin-Sonbong free trade zone. It is of great concern that the world’s poorest nation might hand over our ancestors’ land to other people for money.

Editorial Writer Huh Moon-myeong (angelhuh@donga.com)