Why is Rason the most fascinating area in North Korea? Because it’s the only area in North Korea where they promote something people wouldn’t usually expect from a socialist government: capitalism. It’s a place where foreign tourists aren’t generally treated as tourists, but as visitors. In Rason, any visitor can have access to the local operated markets, open up a local bank account with a bank card, and more. Which also means being able to spend local DPRK Won currency openly. This isn’t possible in Pyongyang or anywhere else in the country, and that’s what makes this so special.
So where is it? Rason located in the far north east of the DPRK bordering both China and Russia. Before the 90s there were two cities within North Hamgyong province, DPRK’s largest and poorest province, named Rajin and Sonbong. The town was most famous for having the easiest access to China and Russia. As the Soviet Union fell, so did the assistance the USSR gave to its fellow comrade, North Korea. So they needed a new plan.
The locals say it was Kim Jong Il who came up with the idea, following the examples China was using back in the 80s to help boost their economy by allowing special trade zones with foreign investors. Some of these cities in China were Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Kashgar, and Dalian. So the two cities, Rajin and Sonbong, were combined, with even the names being mashed to form Korea’s newest province, Rason (Special Economic Zone).
With roughly 200,000 locals, the city has a new sea port backed by Russian funding, a 5 star luxury hotel & casino run by a Hong Kong based company, the country’s most famous massage therapist school, and even a few restaurants and bars run by both locals and foreigners.
Better yet, the local market here is a pretty big deal. The market used to be housed under a large shed with most of the sellers spilling out onto the streets. Now it’s made up of newly built rows of large warehouses selling anything and everything they can get their hands on. As you approach the market, you’ll first see locals squatting next to a box of apples, or a few cigarette packets sprawled on the ground. But, as you make your way closer into the market, you’ll soon be seeing trays of fish and crabs, then tables of light bulbs and screw drivers. As you step inside the warehouses the atmosphere bursts right in front of you: locals shouting, haggling, laughing, doing their daily business. To top it off, it’s mostly women and oh boy, are they good at haggling.
Local snacks, meat, fish, vegetables and imported fruits, cooked dishes, fill the upper floors of the warehouses. Jackets, scarves, beanies, socks, revolutionary caps, fashion that fits into the local fashion usually pack downstairs as well as mobile phones, basic electronics and anything the house needs to be fixed up. What I enjoy is running into Russians who live across the border; many of them come here because of the insanely cheap prices. It’s certainly one of the most interesting spots in the DPRK.
On the other side of the coin, all the glitz and glam of a growing Special Economic Zone also carries some downsides along with it. The country’s largest oil refinery sits abandoned in a valley to the north of the city. It was built during the 70s as the Koreans were taking advantage of the cheap oil Russia were feeding them at “mates rates”. As the USSR crumbled, so did this deal. In the early 90s Bill Clinton stepped in and agreed if the Koreans could stop their nuclear program the US would donate a large amount of oil to help aid their economy. The deal lasted only a year. Since then, the locals say this barren oil refinery is a fine example of the sanctions the US have placed on the country. A little piece of history plonked on large land.
Last but not least, another reason why I love Rason is because almost no foreign tourists come here.
Every year we do our annual Rason Essentials Tour in March. We start the tour in Beijing, take the overnight sleeper train up to Yanji, the largest city to hold ethnic Koreans living outside of Korea, and spend a night in a North Korean state run hotel (very fancy one at that!), quite the experience in and of itself. We then drive two hours to the North Korean border to walk into North Korea, where we spend another two nights checking out this unique and fascinating area.