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Russian ties breathing life in North Korean trade town

STORY: This is the Rason Special Economic Zone, once a North Korean experiment in limited capitalism that now appears to be the epicentre of the isolated country’s growing ties with Russia.

That’s according to regional experts, who say it includes possible shipments of arms for the war in Ukraine.

Rason was established in the 1990s on the border with China and Russia.

It was a dream destination for many North Koreans, with its booming markets selling imported goods.

"There were many electric bikes, imported from China, that couldn’t be seen in other areas, and motorbikes and cars. Then things like Czech draft beer started to come in as well. So, Rason was a paradise until around 2017 when economic sanctions started to bite."

That’s Lee Chan-woo, a North Korea economy expert at Teikyo University in Japan.

He says border closures during the pandemic also choked off the town of about 200,000 people.

But in recent months, ships have been spotted docking at Rason’s port for the first time since 2018.

U.S. and South Korean officials say they include Russian vessels linked to the country’s military logistics system.

Officials from Seoul have told reporters that an estimated 2,000 containers suspected of carrying artillery shells have been sent from Rason’s port.

Though the Kremlin has denied such shipments.

Satellite images also suggest a spike in trade over the past year via the rail line to Russia, seen here opening in 2011.

Chung Songhak, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Security Strategy, said possible new cargo depots popped up in May.

"This area was where trains weren’t identified at all for a while, but especially after Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang for North Korea's July 27 Victory Day, more train carriages have been spotted.”

Moscow and Pyongyang have been forging tighter ties in the face of what they see as a hostile U.S.-led Western camp.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in September in eastern Russia – Kim's first known overseas trip since 2019.

China – with its larger economy and deeper history with North Korea – may seem the more obvious candidate to drive a recovery in Rason.

But experts say the country's deepening cooperation with Russia may make a more immediate impact, now that the two sides are becoming closer against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.