A well placed Chinese-Korean business source who works regularly inside the DPRK has told NK News that there are plans to convert the north-eastern city of Chongjin into a special economic zone (SEZ) “very soon.” Interestingly, the source said that the Chongjin SEZ would be a “real one”, unlike the somewhat limited Rason initiative. A second source on the matter confirmed the source’s report, but added that when established city would be restricted to Chinese investment only – something that might not be that surprising given the already strong Chinese presence there (consular office, Chinese hotel, etc)
As a city which already plays a significant role as a wholesale hub in the North Korean market system, with functioning port facilities, large population and relatively functioning industrial base, there are many reasons why it would make sense to create an SEZ in North Korea’s largest north eastern city. Having its own thermal power plant that recent photos have shown to be operational, industry could have a potentially consistent power supply there if it were to open in large scale. And being close to both China and Russia and having non-freezing port facilities, it could serve as an ideal base for exporting products around the region.
It is important to note that Chongjin has for over two decades been designated a “Free Trade” port for Rason, having been labeled such in 1991 when the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone was first created (reaffirmed in this 1994 document). However, while NK News has just learnt about fresh reports that the city is to be converted into a SEZ, it is nonetheless important to note that these rumors are not necessarily new, with similar stories emerging as far back as 2002. Back then, Chosun Ilbo reported on the story suggesting:
“Chongjin may become a second free economic zone in view of possible synergy effects from its proximity to the Rajin-Sonbong free trade zone, sources speculate. North Korean authorities attach importance to the fact that Chongjin is linked with China and Russia on land and with Japan by sea, while Shinuiju is connected with China only, add the sources.
Like the Rajin-Sonbong zone, wire fences are expected to be erected around Chongjin in order to thwart public access to the city,” speculates an expert.“
After ten years, might North Korea now really be considering opening Chongjin up as another special economic zone? Or is this just more unsubstantiated rumor? In the absence of any reporting from KCNA in the meantime, only time will tell.