Fángchuān — Where China, North Korea and Russia Converge

Map: Tumen River Joint Development Area (Arase, 1999).


Some unusual places in the world are magnets for geopolitical intrigue.  Fángchuān is one of these places, nestled at the convergence of the Chinese, Russian and North Korean borders on the Tumen River.

Fángchuān was a famous flashpoint area for conflict between the Soviet Far Eastern Army and the Japanese Kwantung Army in 1938.  Tensions had been rising along the Manchuria-USSR frontier since the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1932, during which time nearly 200 border skirmishes occurred.

Tensions came to a head in July 1938 around Lake Khasan, which is located adjacent to the Fángchuān area where the borders of China, North Korea and Russia converge.  The conflict centred on a dispute over the whether the Soviet-Manchurian border line ran along Lake Khasan, as the Japanese argued, or the adjacent Changkufeng Heights, as the Russians maintained.  By the time of the ceasefire on 11th August 1938, Japanese and Russian troops had reached a stalemate occupying positions atop the Changkufeng Heights.  Today, this conflict is commemorated by a small a small museum and a monument overlooking the Changkufeng Heights.

This area was contested territory well before the 1930s.  In 1860, China’s Qing government ceded Fángchuān and other strategic coastal territories through the Treaty of Peking, in return for Russian assistance in ending an Anglo-French occupation of Beijing.

For China, the inability to access the Sea of Japan at the mouth of the Tumen River has been a factor in condemning its northeastern provinces as economic backwaters.  The nearest port facilities are 2,000 kilometres to the south in Liaoning Province, on the Bohai Gulf.

In 1995 the governments of China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and Mongolia had signed an agreement to develop the Tumen River area, featuring a $20 billion port and free economic zone located at Fángchuān.  However for logistic and political reasons this project has never taken off and Fángchuān remains little more than a tourist curiosity.

Further Reading:

Arase, D. (1999). ‘Economic Cooperation in the Region Where China, Russia, and North Korea Meet.’ Japan Policy Research Institute. JPRI Working Paper No. 53.

Colin, S. (2003). ‘A border opening onto numerous
geopolitical issues: The Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture
.’ China Perspectives. July-August 2003.

Doerr, P. (1990). ‘The Changkufeng/Lake Khasan incident of 1938: British intelligence on Soviet and Japanese military performance.’ Intelligence and National Security. 5(3), pp. 184-199

Wang, R, & Li, W. (1994). “The development of the tumen river and the economic geographical background of its hinterland.” Chinese Geographical Science. 4(2), pp. 148-158.

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