Despite its reputation as one of the most closed nations in the world, North Korea is, at least partly, opening up to market economy conventions, evident in its effort to cultivate its specially designated economic zone.
North Korea designated Raseon the country’s first free trade zone, as a “special city” in January 2010. The city, which borders both China and Russia, was dubbed a free trade zone along with nearby Sonbong in 1991, even though foreign investment never materialized.
In recent years, the North has tried to reinvigorate the trade zone, signing an accord with Russia to restore railways that could help rejuvenate the port there. Russia invested 140 million euro ($202 million) in the Rason project in late 2008.
In recent months, North Korea appears to have initiated a media campaign for Rason, beckoning foreign investors as Pyongyang struggles to resuscitate its moribund economy, according to informed sources and media reports.
According to a source familiar with North Korean affairs, the city has seen both new factories built and upgrades of previous ones.
A couple of large Chinese companies have also reportedly signed deals on either providing construction parts or investments in the region’s resources development.
Chinese commerce officials from the central government and the nearby Jilin Province have also reportedly held talks with their Pyongyang, Rason counterparts regarding such business transactions.
The city is also becoming more urbanized, according to sources. Apartments and road construction repairs are sprouting, while the number of daily logistics traffic across the nearby North Korea-Chinese border has nearly doubled to some 200 trucks in late April, compared to some 100 trucks just three months ago.
The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il recently traveled to the city, a move that analysts see as underlining the regime’s desire to promote the trade city to lure foreign investment.
The KCNA reported on April 22 that Kim visited the city’s Rajin Shipyard where he was briefed on different processes of shipbuilding. There he highlighted the importance of the shipbuilding industry and urged for the introduction of new production technology.
It was the first time that the North’s tightly controlled media reported the name of the shipyard and Kim’s visit there. Known as one of three major shipyards in North Korea, the Rajin Shipyard is believed to have built warships and submarines, according to sources in Seoul.
Increasing media reports from North Korea on Rason also seems to back claims that the country is putting its weight behind the city.
On April 19, the KCNA filed a profile report on Rason’s tourism industry, touting its historic relics, cultural facilities and fantastic seascape “and introducing tourist hot spots in and near the city.
In an earlier, March 30 report, the KCNA said that the city has adopted “a preferential tariff system” for foreign investors and traders.
“Choe Kwang-nam, an official in charge of economic cooperation of the Rason City People’s Committee, told the KCNA that the zone provides favorable business conditions to foreign investors through the preferential tariff system,” it said.
“Foreign investors and businesses are allowed to conduct diverse economic and trade activities and have a free choice of investment forms and business,” it quoted Choe as saying.