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Rason - A view from our expert author
The 150km-long coast running down to Mount Chilbo chops from stretches of sandy beaches in lazy bays to dramatic cliffs and rock outlets © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
North from Chongjin along the coast – and now accessible by road from that city – is the DPRK’s northeastern-most corner where lie the two cities of Rajin and Sonbong, cities whose names have been collectively wed to name the area Rason Free Trade Zone. This is frontier country in many senses: as the area where the DPRK has borders with China and Russia; as a Special Economic Zone, it’s a somewhat autonomously-run enclave of development and experiment for capitalist – and foreign – ways of doing business; for the contrast between the industrial developments and the still beautifully pristine natural landscapes in and around the zone; and that so, so few Westerners visit here at all. The area’s distance from Pyongyang and the different ways of doing things amid swathes of untouched land give this place a unique frisson.
The 750km² Rason area was dedicated in 1991 as a foreign investment zone and prospective hub of investment, industry and export by road, rail and sea to Russia, China and wherever the Pacific can take it. Two-thirds of the region’s people inhabit Rajin and Sonbong, many working in Rajin’s general trade port, Sonbong’s oil processing refineries and the iron, magnesium, uranium and ceramics industries on the cities’ outskirts.
Since its inception, the bias has been more to promote the area for industry instead of tourism, but the zone’s development has taken time. Doing business with the DPRK is a fine art, and the forested hills and wetlands, lakes and the Tuman River delta within the Rason Zone still host such an abundance of wildlife. The 150km-long coast running down to Mount Chilbo chops from stretches of sandy beaches in lazy bays to dramatic cliffs and rock outlets engineered by Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Winter along this part of Korea’s East Sea is cold and windy and temperatures can fall to -10˚C, while August peaks the summer’s warmth at 25˚C.
Set amid stunning natural scenery, the long-standing enterprise zone on the borders of Russia and China is a metaphorical laboratory for Pyongyang’s experiments with capitalism.
For now, Rajin is not an unpleasant town. Its wide tree-lined boulevards are well kept and, like the buildings, it’s all well lit at night and everything is on a human scale. Over the years there have been many carloads of investors brought in to discuss theories, plans and maps to point at regarding Rason’s development, and there is a fantastic, almost ethereal computer graphic video on NKEconomy Watch (www.nkeconwatch.com) outlining the most amazing plans for the city’s redevelopment. But one wonders if sooner rather than later the zone may come into its own, and its current not inconsiderable accompaniment of 150 companies from 20 countries could soon seem like small fry.
As of 2013, the Russians are working on completing a 54km rail link down via Khasan to Rajin as part of a bigger plan to link the Trans-Siberian railway to a Trans-Korea line down to South Korea. This would take goods from both Koreas, Japan and China (these east Asian countries producing a quarter of the world’s GDP) all the way to Europe via Russia, in a third of the time it takes by ship via the storm-laden waters of the Indian Ocean, the pirates off Somalia, and the Suez Canal under a tumultuous Egypt.
Russia also seeks to pipe gas and ship coal to both Koreas, while the ROK and Russia have their own plans to build a large industrial and chemical complex and zone in Rason. Russia’s border with the DPRK comes from its purchase of the coastal strip off China in 1860, a deal that cut China off from the coast in this region – and China’s northeast industries need a seaport to export from (coal from Jilin already exports through Rason). So it’s Chinese money that’s rebuilt the bridge from Wonjong and it could be billions more in dollars from China that expand Rajin’s port cargo capacity from three million tonnes per annum to 100 million tonnes by 2030.
The area’s population may have grown fivefold to one million by then, including not a few score thousand Chinese. Tourism is also being beefed up and will benefit from better road and rail links. A regular rail link has been plotted from Rajin to Mount Paektu, taking travellers coming in on cruise ships from the ROK’s Sokcho (to name but one source of tourists), and avoiding the long-winded, multi-visa ROK–Russia–China route. But don’t hold your breath.