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From 2,500 m above sea level on Baitou Mountain in the Changbai (Changbaek) mountain range, on the Chinese-North Korean border, the river flows south to Hyesan before sweeping 130 km northwest to Lin-Chiang and then returning to a more southerly route for a further 300 km to empty into the Korea Bay between Dandong (China) and Sinŭiju (North Korea).
The river is almost 800 km long and receives the water from over 30,000 kmē of land. The Yalu's most significant tributaries are the Changjin , Herchun , and Tokro rivers. The river is not easily navigable for most of its length: although at its widest it is around 5 km, the depth is no greater than 3 m and much of the river is heavily silted.
The river basin is the site where the kingdom of Goguryeo rose into power.
Because of its strategic location between China and Korea, the river has been the site of several battles, including:
- Battle of Yalu River (1894) - Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)
- Battle of Yalu River (1904) - Russo-Japanese War
The Korean side of the river was heavily industrialized during the Japanese Colonial Period (1910-1945), and by 1945 almost 20% of Japan's total industrial output originated in Korea. During the Korean War the movement of UN troops approaching the river provoked massive Chinese intervention from around Dandong. In the course of the conflict every bridge across the river except one was destroyed.
The river is important for hydroelectric power, and one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Asia is in Sup'ung Rodongjagu , 100 m high and over 850 m long, located upstream from Sinuiju. In addition the river is used for transportation, particularly of lumber from its forested banks and provides fish for the local population.
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