North Korean Economic Development and the Urban Landscape of Rason

This piece was originally published in the Tumen Triangle Documentation Project – Issue Two published by Sino:NK

Rajin, Rason SEZ, DPRK.
Rajin, Rason SEZ, DPRK (taken by the author, May 2013).

In mid-2013 I visited Rason for the first time, though not my first visit to the DPRK.  I embarked on this trip hoping to see visual evidence of the much-debated tentative structural changes across the North Korean economy under Kim Jong Un’s leadership.  After all, the Respected Leader’s 2013 New Year’s address emphasised developing the country’s scientific and technological capabilities to “fan the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century.” 

The restructuring of the institutional arrangements governing the Rason economic zone zone have been codified domestically in the Law of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the Rason Economic and Trade Zone [1] in conjunction with Sino-North Korean ministerial-level cooperation to improve the investment climate in Rason for joint venture projects.  My objective was to see what these changes looked like on the ground.

Given the well-known restrictions placed on visitors and the difficulties of conducting traditional field research, I took my cue here from the work of Peter Atkins who has argued that culture, politics and economy are encoded into landscapes.[2]  For the in-country observer, landscapes—urban built environments, rural agricultural settings and wilderness areas—can be a rich source of information about the political economy and culture of the country.  Reading the encoded landscape therefore became the methodology for my observations on the ground.

Juche Tower in Pyongyang
Juche Tower in Pyongyang (taken by the author, June 2012).

If the broad boulevards and large monuments of Pyongyang’s urban landscape are an ideological theme park coded with the power and personality of the Kim dynasty, and smaller industrial cities like Hamhung and Chongjin scarred with the detritus of Chollima-era heavy industry, then Rason is increasingly characterised by physical evidence of twenty-first century economic production.  This physical evidence suggests a gathering momentum of development activity in Rason…

Infrastructure: The newly-paved road from Wonjong to Rajin and the new hot spring tourist centre en route, facilitating increased trade and tourist traffic into Rason from the Yanbian region of China.  Russian interests have also invested in upgrading the railway line from Rason into Russia, and the construction of a new pier in Rajin harbour.  If Rason is to become an export hub, the upgrading of transportation infrastructure is critical.

Construction of Russian-financed peer in Rajin port (taken by the author, May 2013).
Construction of Russian-financed peer in Rajin port (taken by the author, May 2013).

Manufacturing facilities: Sino-North Korean joint venture manufacturing facilities visited on our itinerary in Rajin and Sonbong, and the seafood processing facilities dotted along the Rajin shoreline, all of which, from what we could see, contained modern industrial equipment.  These facilities make a striking contrast with the run down 1950s-vintage machinery visitors see at the Hungnam fertiliser factory in Hamhung.

Energy systems: Solar-powered streetlights and small-scale wind turbines, evidence of decentralised energy generation that circumvents the poorly-maintained national electricity grid.

Marketisation: Most interesting, however, was our visit to the Rajin market, the physical manifestation of the nexus between the government hand and grassroots change in shaping the North Korean economy.  The market is huge, encompassing two large halls and surrounding outdoor bazaars packed with customers buying consumables—everything from fruit and vegetables to clothing and Chinese-manufactured whitegoods—from the all-female market vendors. 

Two thoughts come to mind here: First, if the market is providing consumable goods to the public, it means the state does not have to, thus freeing up resources for the government to distribute to the military under the Songun allocation model or devote to other productive enterprises.  Second, the notion that the supply networks undergirding the market might provide an avenue for social organisation outside of sanctioned collective activities, as argued by Andrei Lankov, seems highly plausible given the scale of the market that we saw.  This contrast between opportunity and danger in the government’s tentative embrace of local-level market trading is illustrative of the Faustian bargain that marketisation presents for the North Korean leadership.

Security: From the checkpoints and razor wire bordering Rason, it is clearly visible that this area is an extra-territorial enclave shielded from the rest of North Korea by.  It’s not difficult to see why; as the Rason development project begins to take off, one could envisage its magnetic attraction to North Koreans from other areas looking to cash in on new opportunities for wealth acquisition.  If there is a danger of “ideological pollution,” internal migrants are likely to be the vehicle of transmission.  The security barriers keep other North Koreans out as much as they corral foreigners and their “dangerous” ideas in.

The Rason economic zone is still fairly rudimentary in comparison with the Kaesong industrial zone, but the development trajectory is clear from the physical evidence on the ground.

See Also…

Habib, B. ‘Rason Special Economic Zone: A North Korean Development Vehicle‘. 29 July 2013.

[1] Law of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the Rason Economic and Trade Zone, (Pyongyang: Legislation Press, 2012).

[2] Atkins, Peter (1996). ‘A Séance With the Living: The Intelligibility of the North Korean Landscape’. North Korea in the New World Order. H. Smith, C. Rhodes and D. Pritchard. New York, St. Martin’s Press, p. 197; Atkins, Peter (1993). ‘The Dialectics of Environment and Culture: Kimilsungism and the North Korean Landscape’. Environment and Development: Views from the East and the West. A. Mukherjee and V. Agnihotri. New Delhi, Concept, p. 315.




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