North Korea is famous for being one of the least visited countries on earth, and amongst other things for not only being one of the last officially Socialist states, but of being perhaps the last truly communist state. The official doctrine might be Juche, but the similarities between the current DPRK and the states on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War are quite current.
But what many people don’t realise is that nestled into the far north-east of North Korea bordering Yanji, and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of China is Special Economic Zone of or the Rason SEZ.
What is the Rason SEZ?
Back in the 80s when Deng initiated the open door policy in China, and the USSR was doing glasnost and perestroika, North Korea decided to have its own little experiment with market economics. Or, as we like to call it in the west, capitalism.
Whilst the SEZ project of Rason has fluctuated somewhat over the years, it’s true to say that Rason is certainly not like any other place in North Korea. In economic terms, foreigners can start businesses and live here. This gives Rason the biggest Expat community of North Korea outside Pyongyang. There’s a fairly famous American goat farmer, a Ukrainian bar/restaurant, and even a Czech microbrewery, although actually, the state own it.
Rason is also quite different from the rest of the North Korean tourism sector with it being (officially) visa-free (you still need a Rason Travel Permit) and relatively freer when you are in the country. Two of the most interesting extra freedoms are being able to purchase Korean Won at the “street” rate and being able to visit and purchase goods at the semi-official private markets. Two things that wouldn’t be much cop in most countries, it’s these little things that can make a North Korean trip really interesting.
So, whilst Rason is unlikely to usurp the Pyongyang tourism monopoly anytime soon, a trip to Rason via Yanji is a good choice for a second or third visit to North Korea. It’s a must for a DPRK geek out there.