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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Monday published a rare piece of travel reportage, describing a visit by two journalists to three Chinese cities and a detailed appraisal of Beijing’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Reporters from the daily newspaper, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), visited Daqing and Harbin city in Heilongjiang Province and Hohhot city, the capital of north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
“We recently learned about the great fruition that Chinese people bear in our journey to cover China’s Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region,” the report – published on the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China – reads.
Reporters visited an urban planning exhibition and an oil field museum in the Daqing region – home to China’s biggest oil field – the Rodong reported, explaining that crude oil is connected to the city’s economic development and the improvement of the people’s living standards.
The journalists developed a “deeper understanding on past, present, and future of Daqing city,” the article, titled “Trip to China: Huge land moving forward vibrantly with the struggle to build a great modern socialist country,” said.
The Rodong linked the visit to the BRI — also known as “One Belt, One Road” — a major infrastructure and trade initiative launched by Beijing in 2013.
The Chinese government hopes to “achieve prosperity and development by strengthening international cooperation and jointly establishing ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’” the Rodong said.
“The plan has now its own framework five years after ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ international initiative was proposed.”
The DPRK newspaper stressed the connection between the Daqing city and the BRI.
“We learned that Daqing city plays the role of a supply depot in implementing the Belt and Road Initiative’s international cooperation, based on its natural resources and natural geographical advantages.”
Citing the construction of a second oil pipeline between China and Russia, the Rodong reported the city would become a “fresh growth engine for general development of the Daqing.”
Harbin’s infrastructure is described as a “dynamic force to promote international cooperation by exporting advanced generating equipment and a foothold for logistics distribution connecting economic districts of China’s interior to Europe.”
“We could observe the development of Heilongjiang Province pursuing the establishment of the great modern socialist country of a new era with their own distinct features…,” the Rodong reported.
Reporting on the visit to Hohhot focused on the city’s wind energy industry, with the guide accompanying the journalists saying electricity rates in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region were cheaper compared to other Chinese cities.
This led to “a number of companies including well-known information communications group” setting up offices in the region.
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region “has become the significant regional foothold and base for cooperation with neighboring countries” to realize the BRI, the article added, citing comments from an official at the Department of Asian Affairs at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) accompanying the reporters.
Such coverage in a North Korean newspaper is rare: international news reporting is typically kept brief and is often focused on relations with adversarial powers.
“Page six usually contains larger editorials about the state of relations with the outside world (often inter-Korean relations and US-North Korean ties),” said NK Pro analyst Peter Ward.
“The travels of foreign correspondents overseas, especially to powerful neighbours, are not a regular fixture of press coverage,” he continued.
“Basically, Rodong Sinmun‘s correspondents give a summary of what they have heard, and their reaction – praise for Heilongjiang’s rapid development.”
The coverage does echo similar reportage on Chinese development during a visit to Beijing by DPRK leader Kim Jong Un in June, however.
That trip saw Kim visit a national agricultural technology innovation park run by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), as well as the Beijing rail traffic control center.
State media reported that the North Korean leader said the researchers at the innovation park “have fulfilled excellent achievements in science and technology research… contributing to the agricultural development of the country.”
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also reported that Kim had “marveled at the high-level of automation and well-established integrated control system” during his visit to the rail traffic control center.
DPRK state-run has also mentioned the BRI in the past, however, though never in quite as much detail.
One expert said it was noteworthy that the Rodong Sinmun had reported on regions which don’t share a border with the North such as Jilin and Liaoning Province.
“The fact that they visited cities in Heilongjiang Province shows that the country pays attention to the connection between North Korea, China, and Russia,” Lee Chang-ju, a researcher at the Sejong Institute and author of “All about Belt and Road Initiative,” told NK News.
“The travel indicates that the country may have intention to push multilateral cooperation… between North Korea, China, Russia or Mongolia using Heilongjiang Province or Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as a foothold.”
NK Pro analyst Ward agreed.
“Of particular interest to the correspondents is the railway network in the region, which in June 2015 was upgraded so that now there are regular scheduled trains from Harbin to Europe,” Ward said.
“This appears to be a relatively direct indicator of potential North Korean interest in joining the BRI and potentially expand this route south to the northern part of the Korean peninsula.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham