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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet the same port has also drawn interest from Russian investors.
Further North, the city of Sonbong has even less of a harbor, but shows more evidence of recent construction than most North Korean cities.
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.
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.
Here’s the bridge over the Tumen …
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.
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.
The fence that’s clearly visible in these images is designed to keep North Koreans out. The clientele is almost exclusively Chinese.
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.
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.
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?
The contradictions between the socialist ideal and the North Korean reality couldn’t be more stark. Some live in splendor …
others live in squalor …
and others do not live at all.
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.