North Korea recently sold 30-year operating rights to docks 3 & 4 at the port in Chongjin to Chinese firms, making it probable that the city will become part of a special economic zone (SEZ) in due course. If so, the move would actually represent the culmination of a plan drawn up almost ten years ago, under which Chongjin was divided into two regions, Chongjin and South Chongjin, in preparation.
At the time, the tentatively planned SEZ area would have encompassed Sunam in the center of the city plus Pohang, Chungam and Sinam to the north, while putting Ranam and Songpyong districts outside the SEZ in South Chongjin.
Therefore, a source from the city recalled on the 13th, “With opening in mind, they put in place plans to move provincial administrative agencies to Ranam District. They chose sites and finished building blueprints under which the provincial Party, provincial People’s Safety Ministry and Kim Il Sung statue from Pohang District and the province’s people’s committee from Sinam District would all move.”
The source went on, “The people of Chongjin were excited then because they knew how much Rasun developed after opening. Those people living in Songpyong and Ranam tried hard to get their jobs and residences moved to the SEZ area in advance, which naturally inspired a security backlash.”
Although its opening has not been an unbridled success, outsiders forget that until the early 1990s Rajin had been a county town in which life was hard even by North Korean standards. However, after it was designated a special economic zone by Kim Il Sung, roads and houses changed beyond recognition. One defector remembered, “The changes took place so fast that it seemed like a foreign city.”
Indeed, many residents of Rajin SEZ famously sent food and material support to relatives in less fortunate areas throughout the famine of 1995-1997.
However, the Chongjin SEZ plan presents considerable hurdles. One problem is that from a security standpoint there is not only the danger posed by foreign products and information, but also that the areas inside and outside the SEZ need to be physically separated.
In Rajin’s case, not only were undesirable elements including family members of political prisoners and people detained in re-education camps forced to move out, but even people without jobs in the SEZ were told to move on.
As subsequently proven by satellite images, “Rajin is surrounded by barbed wire, like an island within the land,” the source said. “The residents are kept away from the foreign tourists, who have access to the luxury hotel and its casino.”
Such issues have led to speculation that the authorities will put a customs house on Susungcheon Bridge, which lies across the Susung River, the planned dividing line between the SEZ area and South Chongjin.
Nevertheless, people in the city have high hopes. As the source noted, “People are hopeful that Chongjin will develop pretty soon, since if foreign currency earning units are really active here then surrounding areas will feel the difference.”