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Dramatic social and political changes in the late 1980s, culminating in the end of the Cold War, created new opportunities for broad and bold thinking about economic development of the long-neglected Northeast Asia region aimed at regional cooperation, peace and prosperity.  The Tumen River basin was militarily, one  of the most heavily fortified place in the world bordering the three riparian states of the USSR, the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. With a vision of “Turning spears into plow sheds” , and the recognition that in this positive political climate Northeast Asia's complementary human, natural, and capital resources could be cooperatively harnessed to generate dynamic new economies throughout the region eventually resulted in the establishment of the Northeast Asia Economic Forum.

The idea of a Northeast Asian Economic sphere first began to gain momentum with the 1988 Niigata Conference on the Sea of Japan, organized by former Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Okita Saburo and Dr. Lee-Jay Cho, then of the East-West Center. Around the same time, Dr. Song Jian, Chairman of the State Science and Technology Commission of the People's Republic of China, was considering the possibilities of developing the Tumen River Basin. As a first step, he and Dr. Cho organized the 1990 Changchun Conference on Northeast Asian Development. The UNDP subsequently undertook the implementation of the Tumen River Area Development Programme.

Despite this initial progress, there remained formidable obstacles to realization of regional economic development. Institutional barriers and different cultural values, legacies, and attitudes continued to constrain cooperation. To overcome these barriers, the NEAEF was created and formalized at conferences on Northeast Asian economic cooperation in 1991 in Changchun and Tianjin. Gaining momentum, the Forum served as co-organizer of the 1992 Pyongyang International Conference, at which the prospects for economic cooperation with the DPRK were examined. The third step on this formative journey was the Forum's August 1992 Vladivostok Conference. Since 1992 the NEAEF annual meeting has been held in Yongpyeong, South Korea in 1993, Niigata, Japan in 1995, Honolulu in 1996, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 1997, Yonago, Japan in 1998, Tianjin, China in 1999, Anchorage, Alaska in 2001, Changchun in 2002, Niigata, Japan in 2004, Seoul, Korea in 2005, Khabarovsk, Russia 2006, Toyama, Japan in 2007, Tianjin, China in 2008, Busan, Korea in 2009, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 2010, Honolulu, Hawaii in 2011, Hainan, China in 2012, Vladivostok, Russia in 2013, Seoul, South Korea in 2014, Beijing, China in 2015, Changchun, China in 2016, and Hong Kong, China in 2017.