When foreigners travel to North Korea, they are usually limited to the capital Pyongyang. Rarely do they get to see other places in the still reclusive nation. We offer you a report from a Russian scholar, Leonid Kozlov, who recently visited Rajin, a port city at the junction of the North Korean, Chinese, and Russian borders. Kozlov, a scholar of international relations at Far Eastern Federal University, took advantage of a newly launched Russia-North Korea ferry link and bought a tour package to Rajin. This port, North Korean northern-most, forms the core of Rason (Rajin-Sonbong) special economic zone (SEZ), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) first SEZ, which was inaugurated in 1991.
Kozlov’s voyage to the DPRK is part of a research project being conducted by researchers from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Moscow. The project examines economic, political, and security links between Russia and North Korea. It also aims to assess Russia’s stance on the ongoing nuclear and missile crisis on the Korean Peninsula. FPRI will publish several additional reports during fall 2017.
Russia’s relations with North Korea are often ignored in the West, being completely overshadowed by China. However, Russia has had a long-time presence in North Korea, of which Rajin is the prime example. In recent years, the Russian-controlled company Rasonkontrans invested $300 million to upgrade the 54-kilometer cross-border rail link to Rajin and to build a modern cargo terminal there. In May 2017, a ferry line was launched connecting Vladivostok and Rajin. Operated by a Russian-North Korean joint venture, the DPRK-flagged Mangyongbong ferry boat provides weekly passenger and cargo service. It is currently the only regular international ferry service to North Korea.
Artyom Lukin, Far Eastern Federal University
Chris Miller, Foreign Policy Research Institute
My Trip to Rajin, North Korea via the Mangyongbong Ferry, July 14-20, 2017
The recent launch of North Korea’s Mangyonbong ferry from Vladivostok to Rajin presents researchers of the DPRK with several exciting developments. First, researchers can now visit the country two to three times for less than the cost of a traditional tour to Pyongyang. Second, as the DPRK’s development is very centralized—all the country’s greatest achievements are concentrated in the capital—a trip to Rajin offers a more accurate understanding of the development level of North Korea’s regions (even despite its status as a special economic zone).
The cost of a tour package to Rajin is about $450 for 4 nights and 5 days. It includes a ferry ticket, accommodation, three meals a day, and excursions. Since Rajin is a special economic zone, it’s not necessary to get a North Korean visa to enter the city. The Russian tour agency must simply get a list of ferry passengers approved by the North Korean consulate in Vladivostok before the trip. The consulate does, however, reserve the right to refuse any tourists on this list.
My round trip ferry ticket in an eight-seat cabin in third class cost approximately $185. That’s significantly less expensive than the cost of a flight from Vladivostok to Pyongyang (which is around 400 euro) and significantly more comfortable than the overnight train from Ussuriysk to Tumangan, especially for North Koreans working in Vladivostok. That said, I didn’t notice any migrant laborers on board. Once aboard the ferry, passengers may move around freely and are only prohibited from entering service quarters, although the captain did eagerly show his Russian guests the ship’s bridge. Personnel on the ferry were almost all from the DPRK and were very welcoming to the tourists. Attendants energetically conversed with us, to the extent that our language skills would allow, and asked excitedly about our homes, families, and daily lives in Russia. The ship itself was old, with signs of rust visible on its sides, although fresh repairs had been made to the cabins. The bunks were about 2 meters long and were quite comfortable. All told, our 90-mile trip from Vladivostok to Rajin took about 12-13 hours. (That is, the ferry travels at a meager speed of 7-8 miles per hour.)
A standard cabin on the Mangyongbong ferry
On our first night in the city, we stayed at a hotel aptly named “Rajin.” The accommodations were quite comfortable. In the morning, I unsuccessfully attempted to walk around by myself, after which our tour group remained attentively supervised. As a Russian tourist, it’s forbidden to travel around Rajin without a guide. In theory, Chinese tourists must also be accompanied by a guide at all times, but there are significantly more visitors from China and the guides don’t have time to keep track of them all. With regard to photography, the main restrictions were no close-ups of people on the streets and no photos of military units. My observations, for the most part, were made from the bus window; as such, this report cannot pretend to be completely objective.
Street crossing in front of our hotel “Rajin”
Our tour program consisted of the following excursions and activities: (1) a seal breeding-ground; (2) the hotel and casino, “Emperor;” (3) Rajin’s tourist center the “Golden coast,” which features an ocean beach; (4) the monument to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il; (5) Sakhyan mountain; (6) the “fisherman’s house” where Kim Il-sung once visited; (7) the memorial to Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation of Rajin in 1945; (8) a boarding school for orphans; (9) the school of foreign languages for students age 11-15; (10) a seaside park and European-style bar; (11) the city market; (12) a children’s concert; (13) a conservatory of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia flowers; (14) a cafeteria; and (15) a therapeutic massage.
Judging by the number of Chinese spectators at the children’s concert in the Palace of Pioneers, it appears that about 500 Chinese tourists visit Rajin each day. According to our guides, high tourist season lasts around five months, from May through September, which would mean that approximately 70-80,000 tourists visit Rajin every year. There were visitors from countries other than Russia and China as well; for instance, we encountered some German tourists during our visit. When we visited the casino in the “Emperor” hotel, a card game was in full swing, and the hall was crowded with no less than 50 players, despite the fact that it was two o’clock in the afternoon. Throughout our travels in Rajin, I saw at least eight hotels.
Chinese tourists taking pictures with performers from the children’s concert
In a city with a population of about 100,000, I counted about twenty construction sites of multi-story buildings. Some sites were active; others were halted. The construction method appeared to be standard across the city: builders first erect a frame and then place a foundation of concrete blocks, even though the particular variety of concrete blocks used appear inexpensive and low-quality. Since the average temperature in Rajin during winter is -5° Celsius, I inquired about how the buildings were heated. Our interpreter explained that new buildings use central heating and have a centralized water supply and sewerage. Older buildings, including schools, are heated by furnaces, for which the state provides coal for free. The older parts of Rajin closely resemble northern Chinese hutongs. They have no sewer systems, and the residents wash their clothing in nearby gutters. When an unfavorable wind blows over the city, the smell is quite strong. There’s no trash in the streets, and garbage trucks are also not noticeable. By my observations, it seems that at least half of the population of Rajin lives in these hutongs. However, they’re gradually being demolished and new ones aren’t being built. Nevertheless, a large portion of the population, which is de-jure an urban population, lives a de facto provincial life. I’d estimate that at least 60% of the DPRK’s population is de-facto peasants.
Old quarters on the outskirts of Rajin
On the roads, we often saw wagons harnessed by oxen and once even saw a two-wheeled cart pulled by horses. There were a lot of bicycles, few mopeds, and many pedestrians walking through the village streets. Public transport consists only of buses in the center of the city, so to reach the tourist center from the region’s outskirts, one must take a 30-minute taxi costing 100 yuan. Within Rajin city proper, any taxi costs 10 yuan. (One U.S. dollar is 6.7 yuan.) The roads are in poor condition: about 90% are unpaved, dirt roads; there is no gravel and practically no asphalt. The roads that are paved are made of concrete slabs, which violently shake as you drive over them. Nevertheless, traffic on the central streets is quite lively during the day; about every five seconds in the city, a car passed by us.
New construction and the market in Rajin
The power supply in Rajin has become noticeably better in recent years, judging by the stories of past travelers. At the tourist center and in the hotel, electricity was constant. We experienced just one power outage that lasted only a few minutes. Each apartment has a solar panel that occupies about half of an apartment window. Judging by the size, these panels should provide enough energy to light apartments in the evening and charge phones and tablets. At night time, pretty much all lights in the city were turned off.
Of the local stores, we were only able to visit those recommended for foreigners. The prices were on average higher than prices in Russia, so we primarily only bought souvenirs. If a tourist from our group needed to buy water or fruit, our guide would collect money from the individual and go to a local store himself. Prices for ordinary goods were as follows: Mineral water cost 3 yuan for a half liter bottle. A .65 liter bottle of Taedonggang beer cost 15 yuan. A 1.25 liter bottle of Rajin beer also cost 15 yuan. Melons were 7 yuan per kilogram. Entrance to the seaside park was 5 yuan. A school notebook was 2 yuan. A candy snack weighing 60g cost 1 yuan. And an excellent hour-long massage cost 100 yuan (although the Russian ferry staff told us that without a guide they can get the same massage for half the price). In the city’s covered market, you have to bargain with vendors and should aim to barter down the initial price by at least two times. Despite a terrible stuffiness in the market, people still crowd in. There appeared to be far more people in the market than in the whole city center.
The preferred foreign currency in Rajin is the Chinese yuan, and it’s accepted throughout the region. Dollars and rubles can be exchanged in banks, but they normally can’t be used on the streets. By law, North Koreans are forbidden from giving foreigners North Korean won, so they are used only in stores from which foreign tourists are prohibited. The prices in these stores are, of course, significantly less than those offered to the tourists elsewhere. However, foreigners who have a working visa in Rajin can freely travel around the city and go to the shops for the Korean residents, where they often can receive won in change.
Rajin’s port didn’t leave the most active impression on me. In the roadstead, there was one shipping container and one small dry cargo container. There were seven to eight small ships, as well as numerous boats. The Russian berth, owned by Rasonkontrans, looked the most modern. When we arrived at the port, we didn’t witness any vessels actively loading or unloading. The fishermen’s boats appeared quite old.
Overall, the standard of living in Rajin is not high, but it is certainly above the poverty level. Throughout our visit, we were constantly passing expensive cars, and our interpreter had a $430 smartphone. We never saw any beggars or drunks on the street, and our meals were always delicious, plentiful, and varied. The young women used cosmetics and looked very put together, and the young men widely engaged in sports (soccer is the most popular). Recreational grounds at schools and factories were almost all unpaved, except at the boarding school for orphans, which featured a playground made of a synthetic surface. The city stadium is currently being reconstructed to accommodate 20-30,000 seats, and newly constructed sports facilities for volleyball, basketball, and swimming recently opened their doors. Smoking is falling out of fashion, but the habit remains widespread. Clothing is simple, mainly made in China, and there are few liberties allowed when it comes to clothes or relations between the sexes. In their spare time, people walk in the park, sing karaoke, play sports, go to the city’s few cafes, visit its theater, 3D cinema, small water park, or arcade, and swim on the beach at the tourist center. A large new Palace of Pioneers is currently being built to serve as a center for children involved in creative and technical activities.
Construction of the city stadium
The locals are unaccustomed to and shy away from Europeans, but they reciprocate greetings from European tourists amiably. They’re much warmer to Russian visitors than to the Chinese because, according to our North Korean guide, Chinese visitors are “loud and behave as if they owned the place.” The Koreans really value when foreigners display knowledge of their history and culture. For instance, our tour guides were very pleased when I identified the 16th century admiral and hero of the Imjin War with the Japanese, Yi Sun-shin, in a picture in the local art gallery. Knowledge of foreign languages is weak in Rajin, so if one frequently does business in the city, they’ll have to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of Korean for everyday encounters.
Overall, this trip confirmed the assessments of the DPRK’s economic situation offered by most North Korea specialists. That is, under Kim Jong-un’s rule, the North Korean economy has experienced small, but steady growth. The level of consumption and quality of life are gradually growing, and production technologies are being improved.
 Since this trip, the name of the hotel has been changed to Imperial Hotel and Casino, Rason