Authorities in cash-strapped North Korea are easing entry requirements for foreigners seeking access to a special economic zone (SEZ) in the country’s far northeast, with wait times for visas now reduced in the hope of attracting further investment, sources in the region say.
Permission to enter Rason, a warm-water port in an area of North Hamgyong province bordering China and Russia, is now granted within about a week by officials assigned to the zone by central government authorities in the capital, Pyongyang, sources say.
“A visitor’s visa to come to Rason is much easier to obtain than a visa to visit other destinations [in North Korea],” a Chinese businessman who regularly travels to and from the SEZ told RFA’s North Korean Service.
“However, travelers holding entry visas for Rason cannot visit other areas in North Korea, and those who are issued regular visas in Pyongyang cannot go to Rason,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Entry visas for Rason, which are issued as plastic cards carrying photographs and the date of birth of the bearer, can be easily distinguished from the general entry visas issued in Pyongyang, a second Chinese source told RFA.
“Those are only sticker-shaped visas that can be attached to passports, or are simple slips of paper,” RFA’s source said.
“The entry for foreigners into Rason has been made easier in order to attract greater investment,” the source said, adding though that travelers to the SEZ must give at least a week’s notice of their intention to visit.
“This is still very inconvenient,” he said.
Founded in the early 1990s to promote economic growth through foreign investment, Rason now hosts about 250 local and foreign-owned business enterprises, including seafood processing and clothing manufacturers, according to a Sept. 14 report by the Associated Press.
The transshipment of coal from Russia to China through Rason’s ice-free port also brings in revenue for North Korea’s sanctions-hit regime, sources say.
Quoted by AP, North Korean trade official Choe Sung Jin said however that the opening of new businesses in Rason, which had climbed to 70 over the last five years alone, dropped this year to zero because of international sanctions imposed after a widely-condemned nuclear test in January.
Speaking in a September interview, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov—a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University and regular RFA contributor—said that foreign investors “hardly want to deal with a country which is associated in their minds with nuclear tests, bellicose rhetoric, and U.N. sanctions.”
“Potential investors usually come to the conclusion that it is both safer and more profitable to deal with China or Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia.”
Reported by Joonho Kim. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Richard Finney.