What Is Hwanggumpyong Island?

There are 1,865 islands along the Saint Lawrence River that flows between the U.S. and Canada. They are referred to as the Thousand Islands, and the U.S. and Canada each own half of them. The scenic views prompted the wealthy to build vacation homes there. George Boldt, owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, built a huge castle on Heart Island for his wife. But she died before he could give her the gift, and that sad story is told to visiting tourists to this day. Boldt put a salad dressing supposedly invented by locals on the island on the menu at his hotel, and today it is known as Thousand Island Dressing around the world.  

River islands are romantic, but they often trigger territorial disputes if they are on the border between two countries. China and Russia have tussled over Zhenbao Island (called Damansky Island in Russian) in the Ussiri River since the 17th century and finally clashed in 1969.

There are 468 islands on the Apnok (or Yalu) and the Duman (or Tumen) rivers. North Korea owns 280 of them, China 187 and Russia one. Under a 1962 treaty between North Korea and China, the North got to possess 127 out of the 205 islands on the Apnok, while China took 78. They claimed islands according to which ethnic group were living on each island at the time of the treaty. Among the North Korean islands on the Apnok are Wihwa (famous as the place where Koryo Kingdom army general Yi Seong-gye, on his way to conquer the eastern part of China, turned back to launch a coup and found the Chosun Dynasty), Hwanggumpyong and Bidan.

Wihwa Island sits in the middle of the Apnok River, but Hwanggumpyong and Bidan can look like part of the banks of Dandong, China. In 1962, the Apnok flowed between Dandong and Hwanggumpyong, but sediment collected over the next 50 years and water narrowed to a few feet. There are claims that China tried to incorporate Hwanggumpyong by filling up the river bed with sand.

On Wednesday, China and North Korea broke ground for a joint development project on Hwanggumpyong. China wants the market to take care of the project, while North Korea wants money from the Chinese central government. The actual terms of the deal remain under wraps. There are suspicions that North Korea is in fact handing the island over to China in return for economic aid. In reality, the success of the Hwanggumpyong project depends on North Korea's will to open up to the outside world.

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Jeong Woo-sang

englishnews@chosun.com / Jun. 10, 2011 13:28 KST

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