The Great Wall of Rason: Kim Jong Il’s Grand Sell-Out

Over the weekend, as I was poring over relatively recent new imagery on Google Earth, I spotted the chilling sight of a fence line — the kind of fence line that until now, I’ve only seen around North Korea’s political prison camps. This was a mystery to me, since I believed that I’d located and delineated the last of the large prison camps years ago. I followed the fence line, wondering what I’d found, until I’d traced it for the astonishing distance of 25 miles, as the crow flies, from the Russian border to the coast south of the port city Rajin (Najin in the South Korean dialect).

The area thus isolated from the rest of North Korea is almost large enough to be a small country in its own right. This is the Rajin-Sonbong Special Economic Zone, now known as Rason, where North Korea claims to be prepared to relax its tight economic control to attract foreign investment. But then, this has been the announced intention for years, and none of this has ever really amounted to much.

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As with all of the images in this post, click them to see them in full size.

Up close, there’s little question that this is a fence line. No road would have such sharp curves, and no power line would thread such a circuitous path. The gates where the railroad and the main highway pass through are clearly visible.

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There are relatively few breaks in the fence line, which in some places appears to be double- or triple-fenced, with a strip of raked gravel to catch any attempts to trespass.

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In some of the more remote areas, the fence appeared (at least at the time these images were taken) to be still under construction.

Why would a state go to such extraordinary effort and expense to isolate such a large part of its own territory? The New York Times tells us:

[T]o let in the air of foreign currency without also letting in the mosquitoes of democracy, North Korea wants to confine capitalism to the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone in the isolated northeast corner of the country, near the borders with Russia and China.

A barbed wire fence, electrified in places, separates the 288-square-mile zone from the rest of North Korea. This despite the fact that a brochure prepared by North Korea’s Committee for Promotion of External Economic Cooperation touts that the zone will become “˜’a crossroad of human transport and traffic.” [N.Y. Times, Sept. 15, 1996]

Did I mention that a South Korean businessman sold Kim Jong Il the barbed wire, and wanted to sell him tasers and high-voltage current generators? The reality of doing business with this regime is even more absurd than Lenin’s vision of noose-peddling capitalists.

Clearly, the North Korean regime wanted to isolate all but those deemed reliable from the infection of Rajin’s investors. This wouldn’t be novel behavior for this regime. In 2002, the L.A. Times’s Barbara Demick reported on the regime’s plan to create a special economic zone in the northwestern city of Sinuiju. According to Yan Bin, the Chinese businessman behind the plan, the Sinuiju Zone would have forcibly relocated up to 700,000 people, about 3% of the country’s total population. And in 2005, the State Department reported that workers at Rason were to be “carefully screened and selected.”

None of which suggests a regime sincerely ready to accept economic or political reform. Instead, it’s suggestive of a regime that wants cash, and is willing to sell its land and move its people to get it. North Korea had already ceded parts of Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in Korea and a sacred place to the Korean people, to China in the 1960’s. More recently, it reportedly leased several islands in the middle of the Yalu River to China — islands that contain rich farmland that could help feed hungry people.

Just hours after I’d traced this line, I also read the reports, via a conservative South Korean daily that China had sent its military into Rason to protect its interests there:

Chinese troops have been stationed in the special economic zone of Rajin-Sonbong in North Korea, sources said Friday. This would be the first time since Chinese troops withdrew from the Military Armistice Commission in the truce village of Panmunjom in December 1994 that they have been stationed in the North.

“Pyongyang and Beijing have reportedly discussed the matter of stationing a small number of Chinese troops in the Rajin-Sonbong region to guard port facilities China has invested in,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said. “If it’s true, they’re apparently there to protect either facilities or Chinese residents rather than for political or military reasons.” How many of them are there is not known. The move is unusual since North Korea is constantly calling for U.S. forces to pull out of South Korea and stressing its “juche” or self-reliance doctrine.

A China-based source familiar with North Korean affairs said, “In the middle of the night around Dec. 15 last year, about 50 Chinese armored vehicles and tanks crossed the Duman (Tumen) River from Sanhe into the North Korean city of Hoeryong in North Hamgyong Province.” Residents were woken up by the roar of armored vehicles. Hoeryong is only about 50 km from Rajin-Sonbong. Other witnesses said they saw military jeeps running from the Chinese city of Dandong in the direction of Sinuiju in the North at around the same time.

China has since denied the reports, saying that it had only sent “negotiators” to Rason. That’s an interesting term. But as with most reports from North Korea, it’s difficult to corroborate or refute this report independently.

What interests could China be so desperate to protect? To China, none of this is really about the development of local industry or investment. It’s about buying access to Rajin’s port. It’s not hard to see why. China’s northeastern rust belt is otherwise landlocked and has to import and export goods by rail, via Shanghai and other ports far to the South. To make matters more concerning, this area used to be Chinese territory, suggesting the danger that China could try to resurrect “historic” territorial claims.

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Yet the plans to restore the port facilities have made little apparent progress. China’s lease of the Rajin port has been variously reported as lasting for 10 years or 50 years. In 2008, North Korea is said to have expelled some inactive Chinese firms from the zone. And looking down at the small facilities, you have to wonder whether this small harbor is worth so much fuss.

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Yet the same port has also drawn interest from Russian investors.

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Further North, the city of Sonbong has even less of a harbor, but shows more evidence of recent construction than most North Korean cities.

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In these images, you can see the main transportation links from China. In red, I’ve mapped the main road link from China. In blue, Curtis Melvin has mapped the rail networks in the area. Notice that the rail lines skirt the edge of the Tumen River rather than passing through the North Korean interior. That may be because of the area’s difficult terrain, but also because of the presence of political prison camps in that area.

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But the single-track rail lines, on which a strong export trade would depend, do not seem to be up to this new challenge.

Where the highway crosses from China into North Korea, you can see trucks ready to cross the Tumen River into North Korea.

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Here’s the bridge over the Tumen …

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and the North Korean customs post, where several more trucks are stopped while their drivers undergo inspection, and quite possibly offer gratuities to lubricate the process.

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Imagery of Rajin, Sonbong, and the surrounding areas does not suggest a stampede of investment in Rajin. No new factories are in evidence. The only noticeable new industry is a Chinese casino.

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The fence that’s clearly visible in these images is designed to keep North Koreans out. The clientele is almost exclusively Chinese.

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China has mixed feelings about the casino. The Chinese government managed to shut it down for three years after a public official gambled away half a million dollars in public funds there. You can see some great photos of the Emperor at that last link, but by most accounts, business is slow. You wonder who could ever have believed otherwise about a casino in North Korea that depends on business from one of the poorer regions of China. How could anyone believe this could be profitable? With whose money?

Not far from the casino, we see the answer. This appears to be a ferry terminal, most likely designed to bring in tourists from Japan, or perhaps from South Korea. Yet the Kim Jong Il regime’s abduction of Japanese nationals, and its more recent attacks against South Korean sailors and civilians, have foreclosed both possibilities for the foreseeable future.

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So the ferry sits unused, the pier is taken over by fishing vessels, and what appears to be a very expensive terminal sits empty.

The only factories you can see in the area are old. There is slight evidence of new construction, but no smoke coming from any of the stacks.

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Not far away, you can see the foundations of what appear to have been homes. Could this have been the beginning of a forced relocation, or are these just homes where no one lived anymore?

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The contradictions between the socialist ideal and the North Korean reality couldn’t be more stark. Some live in splendor …

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others live in squalor …

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and others do not live at all.

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If the reports of the Chinese troops in Rajin are accurate, one would certainly expect it to be accompanied by a surge of business investment and infrastructure reconstruction. That will be evident in the new imagery within the next year, and could well mean that the Great Wall of Rajin becomes, in effect, an international border around a massive area of North Korean territory. And perhaps a flash point for future territorial disputes.

Assuming the report is accurate, the most intriguing question may be just what Chinese troops are needed to protect Rason from. If true, the report implies that North Korea is not as stable as we’ve believed it to be.

Update: Curtis writes in to say that the Ferry Terminal is actually the “Korea Rason Taehung Trading Corporation,” which exports … food. As all nations with starvation and malnutrition undoubtedly do. Anyway, I’m not about to question Curtis, who does exhaustive research and detective work to reach his conclusions.

Update 2: More here on China’s plans for Rason:

A Chinese firm has signed a letter of intent to invest $2 billion in a North Korean industrial zone, representing one of the largest potential investments in Kim Jong Il’s authoritarian state and a challenge to U.S. policy in the region. [….]

The letter of intent involves China’s Shangdi Guanqun Investment Co. and North Korea’s Investment and Development Group. An assistant to the managing director of Shangdi Guanqun, who identified himself only by his surname, Han, said his company’s planned investment is focused on the Rason special economic zone, situated near North Korea’s border with Russia. [….]

Mr. Han said the plan is to develop infrastructure, including docks, a power plant and roads over the next two to three years, followed by various industrial projects, including an oil refinery, over the next five to 10 years. He said the company was waiting for a response from the North Korean government before applying for approval from China’s Ministry of Commerce.

“It’s all pending at this stage, and it’s really up to the Korean side to make the decision,” Mr. Han said. He added that the $2 billion figure was what the North Korean side had hoped for, not necessarily what his company could deliver. The company’s Web site says the company was “under the administration” of a state-owned enterprise, Shangdi Purchase-Estate Corporation. Mr. Han, however, said his company was “100 percent private.”

I’m sure any company with a few billion dollars laying around has assets in banks with U.S. correspondent accounts. Those assets can — and should — be frozen under Executive Order 13,551.

14 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis, Joshua!

    One question, though…

    To make matters more concerning, this area used to be Chinese territory, suggesting the danger that China could try to resurrect “historic” territorial claims.

    By “this area,” what exactly do you mean? The area on the southern side of the Tuman/Tumen was no more (or less) Chinese territory than the rest of North Korea, right? It is the Russian side that was formerly Chinese, no?




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  2. Brilliant post, Joshua. Thanks very much for your excellent work.

    Indeed, I wonder… when the DPRK regime falls one day, what will these Chinese troops do?




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  3. Rason is a big deal, and this is a very interesting post. Thank you very much Joshua.

    I think Rason qualifies as an “ice-free port”, and is well within standard International Navigation Limits — or Institute Warranty Clauses as they were once known. That means that it is available to most of the world’s shipping fleets -and their container vessels.

    I read somewhere recently that the Chinese are floating a really huge investment bond to increase the port by three berths. The three piers that you have shown are served by rail-lines, but appear small. If one consolidated them into a single large land mass by dredging and filling, one would have a substantial container port, which I think is the intent of that bond story.

    Such a port would give the Chinese national shipping lines enormous fuel savings to the USA and Canada, in an industry where every dollar counts. With bunker (or cargo ship) fuel at $550/ton, a ship using Rason rather than a northern Chinese port could save at least $20,000 per voyage, a huge, really huge, economy. It would be a game-changing development, especially if the South Koreans and Japanese competitors could be excluded.

    A modern container port requires — icefreedom, a large flat tarmac hinterland for containers, a marshalling yard and a large vessel berthing area, with water alongside at least 45 feet deep; the shipping berths have 60 foot wide concrete “aprons” placed on very large pre-stressed concrete pilings, and into which railroad lines are sunk and along which the huge container cranes run. If there is a shortage of flat land, then the berths are frequently built outwards into shallow water, using very large dredges to fill areas marked off by major rock walls, and onto which the concrete aprons are built, so that the berths surround the container areas. The marshalling yard can be of various designs, but the requirement for high quality track is inescapable.

    So Rason becomes a reality when one sees huge earth moving equipment, stockpiles of pre-stressed pilings, evidence of re-laying the railroad, and dredging. Once these start, one expects a working port within three to eight years.

    Alternatively, it could be used as a port of entry for Australian coal — when one would see even more dredging to 65 feet depth, and a vast marshalling yard.

    The fences could be designed to keep North Koreans out — just as the Chinese have tried to control access to Shenzhen. There are stories of worker units vying to work at Rason, and becoming upset with the necessary bribery that is demanded, suggesting that it is a very attractive destination within the DPRK at present — and one would also expect the underground workforce to seek to infiltrate for the menial jobs. Fencing becomes logical. Also, every port in the world uses fences of various sizes and designs to protect what is on the docks. Indeed, if the port really does work, the use of checkpoint gates is one way for the DPRK to collect taxes. And gates don’t work without fences. Finally, if one wishes to ensure exemption from sanctions on the grounds it is a genuine Free Trade Zone under Chinese control, then one needs fences from the port to China — and you’ve found them. So there is reason for fences.

    I assume that the reports of “tanks” could apply to very large earth-moving equipment, and the soldiers could be engineers, with the whole port development plan under one of the Chinese military district economic plans. So there is no need for military alarm — but a real need to examine whether the apparent Free Trade Zone exclusion from UN sanctions threatens to emasculate the entire sanction program.

    If Rason does become a reality, it will generate such income for North Korea that we won’t again be waiting for its collapse in my lifetime. Rason is a big deal.




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  4. How sad that the North Korean regime would begin to cede some of its territory to China. It sould be so much better to cede all of North Korea to South Korea.




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  5. I found a Chinese blog on North Korea with more photos of Rason (ç½—æ´¥ in Chinese) plus some insight into its current use to transport coal by sea from Jilin province’s Hunchun to Shanghai. This allows China to save money on commodity transport costs by domestic rail or via the Chinese port of Yingkou in Liaoning province.

    hnhanya-blog
    In 2008 a Chinese company in Dalian obtained the first right to use this North Korean port facility. (Kim Jong-il stopped in Dalian on his way to Beijing during his first trip to China last year.)

    More Rason photos from same blog




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  6. Same blog…I just found tourist photos of the Emperor Casino; check it out! (exterior and interior shots)

    Emperor Hotel & Casino

    The Chinese tourist said that some cars he spotted in the casino parking lot had license plates from China’s Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang provinces. One of the photos shows North Korean Camry taxis exclusively for use by casino guests.




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  7. Really impressive photographs, Spelunker. The nine or so cranes are not container cranes, but appear to be designed for handling bulk cargo (like the coal that you mention, and which is present on the piers) and for ship-building. They are an impressive collection, of luffing and counterbalanced and manifold purchase types, and they can handle quite substantial loads, from steel plates, to tanks to clamshells of coal — but they suggest that the port is still rather old-fashioned.

    Your point that coal is already exported from Rason strongly suggests it is unlikely to be imported there. It becomes increasingly possible that the port would retain these older but capable finger piers, and add an entirely new container terminal of substantial size. That will need major rock movement, onto barges for placement, and floating dredgelines.




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  8. Since this is North Korea, is it possible the fence is just as much to keep people in Rason as it is to keep them out? I would think anyone working there couldn’t help but observe a few things that don’t quite square with Juche ideology.




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  9. We almost have to admire Little Fatso I (KJI) as a shrewd real estate leasing agent. As Mr. Stanton mentioned/referenced in Update 2 above, LFI shook down the PRC for a $2 billion upfront fee, plus (probable and substantial) unknown annual lease payments. But what will the PRC get in return? Oh – possible direct port access, through Rajin/Rason, to the Sea of Japan. What a deal – visually, at Google Earth, the port of Rajin/Rason

    42 19 47.09 N, 130 23 55.32 E (3.03 KM “Eye alt”)

    doesn’t look much bigger than Marina del Rey in California

    33 58 49.04 N, 118 27 06.29 W (3.03 KM “Eye alt”)

    which handles recreational craft exclusively. Based on this article, Rajin/Rason can barely handle the merchant shipping relevant to the modern world and will need massive improvements/upgrades. Mmm hmmmm. So I went to Google Earth and found the “Add Path” feature in the toolbar and sorta drew a line along the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula, roughly between the port of Busan/Pusan and the the PRC Customs facility near Rajin/Rason Mr. Stanton kindly marked out in one of the above images. (Mr. Stanton – maybe you could number the images if you have a lot to show in an article? Thanks!) I picked Busan/Pusan because if you visit

    35 06 53.25 N, 129 03 48.99 E (3.03 KM “Eye alt”)

    at Google Earth, you’ll see a REAL port. One that can handle, or can probably easily upgrade to handle, anything, in any volume, the PRC might want to import/export. Right now. The distance came out to about 600 miles. Sigh. How much easier it would be for EVERYONE if the PRC ran multiples of two parallel rail lines between the PRC customs house and Busan/Pusan. I’m sure it’s possible – in the map above, it looks like someone kinda figured this out. Between 1912 and 1932. Then again, don’t tell Little Fatso I/II because they might go for it and with the shipping container transit fees alone, they might become a ” . . . strong and powerful nation . . . “




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  10. Here is an album of Rason photos from yet another Chinese blog on North Korea. The photos show local people in and around the area of Rason. The young lass performing a handstand against the casino wall is possibly a Russian resident of Rason.

    Chinese DPRK Blog




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