AP’s Alexa Olesen recently travelled to North Korea’s Rason special economic zone where it’s said any foreigner may now enter visa-free as long as their trips are booked through an approved travel agency.
Here’s what she found:
[Rason] lies in the far northeastern tip of North Korea, 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Pyongyang, but will be about an hour’s drive from China once the road is completed.
Rumbling Chinese cargo trucks already ply the route, churning up plumes of choking dust and ferrying containers of Chinese-made shoes, plastic toys, computer speakers, T-shirts and DVDs to the Rason Free Trade Market.
The market, a 13-year-old experiment in small-scale capitalism, has been so successful that the Chinese managing company, the Tianyu Group, is planning to expand the jam-packed 54,000-square-foot (5,000-square-meter) market to 320,000 square feet (30,000 square meters), Tianyu vice director Zheng Zhexi said.
“As I see it, this is the way of economic development, and it’s something that the people want,” Zheng said. “I think it’s reached a point where it cannot be reversed.”
Rason has benefited from the shift in Pyongyang’s priorities. When Zheng arrived in 1997 to set up the market, people were hesitant to get involved. Now Tianyu doesn’t have the space to approve even a fraction of the applications from prospective vendors, he said.
“Ordinary people’s sense and the awareness of the market, and their views on the economy — all these have changed a lot,” Zheng said.
If what this guy says is an accurate reflection of changes on the ground, then things are finally looking up for Rason. First designated a special economic zone in 1991, the project quickly floundered as foreign investors stayed away. It wasn’t until 2010 when the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly issued an edict to declare Rason as a “special city” that the region was revived again.
If these changes keep chugging along, Rason could very well become to North Korea what Shenzhen is to China.