Far away from Pyongyang, in the north-east of the DPRK, sits the small city of Rason. Few people have heard of it, even less have been – even amongst relative frequent travelers to the DPRK. In everyday talk, people imagine that area of the country to be isolated, impoverished and irrelevant.
This image is hard to shift when popular discussions about North Korea continually frame Pyongyang as the only place worth visiting in the country. But is that true? Rason is a city with a few surprises to the foreign visitor. Far from being an obscure settlement of little interest, this area is, by North Korean standards, in fact radical for becoming the first hub of foreign investment in the country; As a designated “special economic zone” (SEZ) it is an experiment and a model for the future.
What is a special economic zone?
‘Special economic zone’ a very technical term. A special economic zone is a designated part of the country where rules and regulations pertaining to business and overseas investment are relaxed. For North Korea – a country that prides itself on having a self-reliant socialist economy where all key industries are government-controlled –that is huge. This means that in Rason, businesses and investors have more scope than in anywhere else in the country. Although similar zones have since been opened, or are planned (such as in Sinuiju and Wonsan), Rason is famous for the fact that it was the very first one having been created in 1992. As a result, it has been the primary choice for investors in the DPRK.
Just where did the idea of a special economic zone come from? From not too far away. In neighboring China, following the death of Mao Zedong, the new leader Deng Xiaoping sought to expand the country’s economy and open it up to the world through reform. To do this, he famously established the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1980. This area, selected due to its proximity to Hong Kong, was famously deregulated, and it helped spur China into a new era of growth. Shenzhen would become a megacity – the country’s 4th largest – and a booming hub of manufacturing and enterprise. China would soon create other ones, including Xiamen and Shanghai, which were equally successful.
The sincerest form of flattery
North Korea, having observed, was inspired by the scheme. In 1992 they thus created the Rason Special Economic Zone, selecting the area due to its positioning between both China and Russia. Of course, the DPRK would encounter severe economic problems during this decade, as well as political ones with the death of Kim Il-Sung. As a result, the increased political caution of North Korea meant that Rason was never as successful as its Chinese counterparts. For the rest of the decade, there was little incentive to develop the area.
In 2011, however, the DPRK government began to place a new emphasis on the Rason SEZ as the economy began to grow again. They introduced new laws and regulations to make it more attractive to investors. In 2012, they created an annual trade fair that companies around the world could take part in. This has been held every year since. Slowly but steadily, Rason’s significance as a hub of business and a shipping port has increased. Whilst it is far from becoming the next Shenzhen or Shanghai, it is nevertheless evolving in a way that makes it remarkably different from the rest of the DPRK.
A different kind of DPRK
There are some unusual things to be found in modern Rason as a result. There have been foreign-owned bars and restaurants present, and there is even a casino in a hotel owned by Hong Kong investors. Additionally, there are private markets in which foreigners can participate; in fact, there’s even a bank that foreigners can open an account with! This brings us to our next point: unlike in the rest of the DPRK, visitors have much more leeway in using the local currency to buy things! Rather than being a bizarre north-eastern town of little value, Rason is, in fact, an exciting place – one which offers an entirely different North Korean experience!
And now here is your chance to see it. Young Pioneer Tours are offering an exciting trip to Rason itself! Our Rason Essentials Tour, starting in Beijing, we will be traveling to Yanji in China’s Jilin Province, before heading over the border to the DPRK. If you’re a fan of business and economics, this trip will prove to be an amazing experience. We have all kinds of economy-oriented activities on offer, such as visiting banks, markets, and many local factories. It is a curious and yet fascinating glimpse of what North Korea could become if Kim Jong-un holds firm to his promises to develop the country’s economy. Come and experience North Korea in a different style. If you’ve already seen it all in Pyongyang and Kaesong, this needs to be your next adventure!