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Reuters: North Korea increases trade with Russia via Rason special economic zone

The North Korean Rason Special Economic Zone is increasingly viewed as an epicenter of the country’s growing cooperation with Russia, potentially serving as a channel for supplying arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Rajin Port in the North Korean Rason Special Economic Zone. Credit: koreakonsult.com

The North Korean Rason Special Economic Zone, initially conceived as an attempt by North Korea to embrace limited capitalism, is now regarded as a focal point of North Korea’s expanding collaboration with Russia, Reuters reported on 29 November.

This includes potential arms shipments to the Ukraine conflict. In the context of heightened North Korea-Russia collaboration amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, Rason might experience more rapid development with Russian assistance compared to what China could offer.

“Now that North Korea and Russia are becoming very close…Russia might send more tourists to North Korea, which can reinvigorate tourism” in Rason, said Jeong Eunlee, a North Korea economy expert at South Korea’s government-run think tank. Apart from tourism, Russia could also export commodities like coal, oil and flour through the economic zone, Jeong added.

The resurgence follows a bleak few years when tougher sanctions, pandemic border closures and a breakdown in China trade choked off Rason, home to some 200,000 people. Recent months have seen ships docking at its port for the first time since 2018. There are also signs of expanding rail trade with Russia.

Lee Chan-woo, a North Korea expert at Teikyo University in Tokyo, said one possibility is that “Russian wood cut by North Korean loggers could be resold to China through Rason.” The two countries have already discussed increased trade and food product deliveries next year, according to Russia’s natural resources minister.

Since August, Rason’s port received multiple Russian ships linked to military logistics, per reports citing satellite data – likely delivering supplies from North Korea to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

The prospect of closer Russia-North Korea cooperation has stoked suspicions of a growing arms trade, with Rason’s port allegedly sending some 2,000 artillery shell containers to Russia, South Korean military officials have told reporters.

More train carriages were spotted after the Russian defense minister visited Pyongyang in July, Chung Songhak, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Security Strategy, said, after analysis of satellite data around Rason, adding that possible new cargo depots popped up in May.

However, the Kremlin firmly denies any military shipments between the two countries so far.

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