Five Asian nations dream of huge business zone


BEIJING -- A huge tract of undeveloped marshland and rice fields where the borders of China, Russia and North Korea converge may become a northeast Asian version of Hong Kong within two decades.

Five nations with historic animosities -- China, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea and South Korea -- announced here yesterday that they will begin unprecedented cooperation on concrete studies of the grandiose plan.

The $30 billion scheme would turn about 400 square miles around the mouth of the Tumen River into an international shipping and processing zone -- one envisioned as ultimately rivaling the booming Pearl River delta in South China.

The zone would encompass parts of China, Russia and North Korea, in an area where the three nations meet near the Tumen River delta at the Sea of Japan.

Long a backwater cut off from potential markets, the zone would be the heart of a large-scale development thrust throughout a much larger region abundant in cheap labor, timber, minerals, oil and farmland.

Proponents of the new zone foresee a high-tech city of up to a half-million residents rising there, beginning in 1995. Its proposed harbor would be the size of Rotterdam's, the world's largest, in the Netherlands. A rail hub would provide direct access to Europe.

China, Russia, North Korea and Mongolia would provide the natural resources. South Korea and a sixth nation, Japan, would be expected to provide much of the investment capital.

That may prove to be the undoing of the scheme: Potential investors have not come forward.

"The criterion for final success or failure of this project is whether we can produce a concept, a strategy, that is attractive to international investors," Long Yongtu, a top Chinese trade official, said yesterday.

"Without international investment, there will be no regional cooperation in this area because the countries concerned are all short of capital," Mr. Long said.

The other shaky element in the plan is whether the six nations can set aside their waning Cold War animosities to see it through.

The nations have met several times since last year to discuss the plan in talks convened by the United Nations' development program.

Ideological conflicts have not been a problem so far, said Herbert Behrstock, a U.N. development official. "It has been a remarkably pragmatic group," he said.

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