When planning our first trip for Paektu Cultural Exchange we explored a number of options to fit around the dates we had available, now whilst visiting the DPRK for Liberation Day, or the Laibach concert might have had more razzmatazz, we felt that doing a trip for the Rason International Trade Fair would offer for more chances to nor only learn more about the workings of the country, but also offer us more chances for cultural exchanges and interactions with the people of the country, we were not disappointed.
One of the main points of interest for us with taking this particular trip into Rason was that through the connections of PCE founder Michael Spavor, we would be offered the extremely rare opportunity of traveling in official, as opposed to tourist visas. Whilst this would not be as big of a deal in other countries in the DPRK, in theory at least this would afford us a much higher degree of freedom to travel independently, arrange our own itinerary, meet the people we wanted to meet, and even pick and pay for the restaurants of our own choosing. Again regular stuff for most countries, but for those who have followed the standard route of a Pyongyang, or Rason tour will understand, this is very far from the ordinary.
A second, and obvious point of interest, and our primary reason for visiting at this time was the Rason International Trade Fair. To give some background on the fair itself this was to be the 5th annual incarnation of the event, and as the hosts informed us the busiest as of yet. The main aim of the fair is to promote international trade and big business between the Rason SEZ, and the wider international community, a place where big deals can be made. Having visited the previous year my personal experience was that at the end level at least the reality was that it was much more focussed on end level consumer goods that can be purchased right away by local Koreans. Although with that being said there is always participation from a broad range of international companies, and it does offer a great opportunity to network.
A classic way to start any trip into Rason, or indeed the Yanbian Korean Prefecture is to stay at the legendary LiuJing Hotel, one of the two DPRK owned hotels in Yanji, full and kitted out with singing North Korean expat staff, Korean beer, and all the other little Korean things you learn to love after constant trips to the country. As some of the group were arriving later we started with a casual Korean meal in the hotel with a brief introduction and talk about the business opportunities in the country before an early night to prepare for our first day in country.
The first difference between a standard tour and going in on official visas is the transport element. A standard tourism package involves taking a private bus to the border, going through customs and immigration on both sides, before being met by your Korean guides, or as they are often wrongly described minders, before transferring buses and then going on your trip with pre-arranged meals, hotels and itinerary planned to an almost minute by minute fashion. On official visas, you get your bus in China, you drive through into the country, pick your own hotels and restaurants, and to an extent just get on with it, so on the morning of departure that was exactly what we did with our Chinese driver picking us up at the ripe old time of 7 am for the trip into Korea.
No trip to Rason would be complete without talking about the fun that is customs and immigration. The Chinese side is fairly chilled, with them seemingly doing an almost over the top act in friendliness to try and offer a comparison with the other side. You will often hear about Rason being the only place in the country that is “visa free”, as a tourist this is technically true, with you having a tourist permit, but on official visas they literally check your name on a system, and thats it you stroll along and into the Korean zone. The Korean zone, to put it as politely as possible is different. It is quite bustling with Chinese businessmen and tourists, and what you bring into the country, such as books, USD sticks, cameras and computers are meticulously recorded, so they can be checked when you get out. This is not a quick process, taking at least an hour, but with the new immigration building having been put up, better than it has previously been.
Once through the official visa adventure continued with us heading into Rajin town with the two questions on our mind being where to sleep and where to eat, two things we had decided not to prior plan, and to see what was available. Whilst this might seem on the risqué side of things generally speaking there are a lot of decently priced hotels in the Rason SEZ that would fit our purposes. We headed to the Tongmyong Hotel, a place a few of us had previously visited. The place is very DPRK, with sea view rooms decorated in quite the retro fashion, as well as some cool little beer kiosks placed conveniently next to the sea view, and surrounded by the anthropomorphic cement pigs that litter the country. A good choice for the first night. For our dinner adventure we decided to go for it by visiting the outside barbecue restaurants in the centre of Rajin. Why? Because previously as tourists we had been told we could not eat here. We went, we ate, and it was wonderful, we finished the evening with a few beers overlooking the sea before an early night in preparation for the big day, the start of the trade fair.
For the trade fair we had decided that rather than just visit we would take part. The cost of renting a booth for the 4 day event is 600 Euro, so we headed straight to the event to set ourselves up. Armed with PCE literature, posters, business cards and some consumer goods to sell to the masses we set up the stall, which in our mind looked pretty plush, and certainly up to the standard of the other participants, we then departed the hall to be at the front for the opening ceremonies, where a number of high level Koreans gave speeches that were translated into English. Standard stuff, but very cool to be able and allowed to be part of.
As I previously said, whilst the trade fair is supposed to be about big business there is also a very strong angle towards consumer goods for Koreans, which means that the second the fair opens it goes crazy with people running around to see not only what is available, but more importantly what is being given away for free. In our wisdom we had decided to give away free PCE bottle openers, when word got out things got a little intense, and we had to start charging for them. Walking around the fair (without guides) was extremely interesting with us noting there being a lot more of an international flavour this year, with firms from China, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Canada and even Italy having stalls, although again the predominant theme still being consumer goods. During this first day we were able to arrange a number of interesting meetings and get a real feel for proceedings.
After leaving the fair we headed not only one of the highlights of a trip to Rason, but also one of the most unique aspects of visiting here, the bank to change money at the black markets rates, and the only private market in the country officially open to tourists. Golden Triangle Bank, the first bank in the zone to deal with foreign exchange is where you currently change into local Won. The current exchange rate is 1300 to 1 RMB, or 15 cents $USD. To put this into context the largest denomination note produced in the country is 5000 Won, and the official exchange rate in Pyongyang is 100 to $1, therefore 50 bucks gets you a fair bit of cash. Private markets though common throughout the country are still quite a contentious subject with regards to the socialist system in the country, to some extent they officially do not exist, but in Rason you can go freely. For this trip we actually got a chance to go to the new 4 story private market apparently built by the Chinese and featuring store like elements, as well as a department store type element, but all run by women entrepreneurs working independently. A great chance to buy goodies, but also see the contemporary situation in the main special economic zone of the DPRK.
As a group with a booth we were entitled to 2 tickets to the official Rason banquet to celebrate the opening day of the fair, the problem being that our group consisted of 9 participants, not including the driver. Luckily group leader Michael not only speaks fluent Korean, but is also quite adept at the pulling of strings, so it was not too long before 9 tickets had been procured and we were hobnobbing with all the big players at the event. The dinner as expected was wonderful, and meeting major foreign business people and listening to their stories about doing business in the zone was priceless. For our second night we had transferred to another hotel, partly due to logistics, and partly just for a change of scenery. The hotel on question PiphaGak on Pipha Island is one of my favourites due to its retro karaoke/bar/club room, although on our first night we decided to go a little easy due to the schedule.
For day 2 we headed right back to the fair for another day of selling our products, checking out the booths we had not yet had time to see, attend a business seminar, and where possible arrange meetings with the people our group were interested in talking to. The seminar was extremely interesting, and useful, although with all these things a pinch of salt needs to be taken with what is said, and dare I say the expertise of PCE or a similar organization would also need to be sought if one were looking to do further investment in the zone. After leaving the fair we decided that a quick jump back onto the tourist trail would be a welcome change, and as we were on official visas decided we would again push the envelope by asking if we would be able to visit Rajin Train station, a place tourists are not usually allowed to go, we were given a yes so headed over there. The station like many buildings in Rason was built during Japanese occupation, and was not only interesting, but a good little break from what we had been doing. We then went to the Telecommunications centre to see what the current situation was with foreigners using the local phone network, and even 3G services. For those that know about Pyongyang, or have visited, you would probably be familiar with KoryoLink the joint venture between the DPRK, and Erascom from Egypt, but alas even if you are lucky enough to have one of these SIM cards they are of no use in Rason. The DPRK strangely actually has 3 networks. Now this could be a blog post in itself, but I will keep it as simple as possible. In “mainland” DPRK there is KoryoLink who provide 3G and have the monopoly on foreign users. They have been in the country about 3 years, but before KoryoLink there was Kumsan, a domestic company that largelly still has better nationwide coverage than KoryoLink. If you are out of Pyongyang your phone will often switch to this network, or to its 2G, or Edge. In Rason they have a third major network run by Thai company The Loxely Pacific Company that does not work with with the other two. Confused yet? Well I did not even begin to get onto the fixed line networks, which again would require a whole article. 3G in Rason has now been implemented from 2015 with a SIM card costing CNY 900 ($130) for the SIM card alone, not including the monthly fees that would follow, and alas no option for an Iphone. After a stroll in the park, and eating in another fabulous restaurant we decided to go for a Korean massage. If you have not tried a Korean massage, it is quite different, the woman train for 4 years to become qualified and whilst it feels quite brutal at the time you feel great afterwards. As this was our last night in the country we had to have a little bit of a party, so when we got back to the hotel we hit the Karaoke, put on the bubble machine and took it in turns either singing Korean songs, or letting the staff sing to us whilst knocking back Taedongang and Soju, the notorious SoMaek cocktail, a decent last night.
For our departure day we had to quickly pop back to the conference hall to sign some pre-arranged contracts before deciding to treat ourselves to lunch at the now infamous Czech beer bar. Last year the government of the Rason imported a full bar from the Czech Republic, as well as a Czech beer master and set up what is one of the more interesting bars in the zone, although the food was very much still of the Korean standard. After a few beers we fixed our exit stamps and over DPRK procedures before racing over to customs and immigration in the knowledge there was a storm on the way. We beat the storm, but guys leaving after us were apparently stuck in the country for a few days due to severe flooding blocking the roads.
We finished the trip with a night and a day hanging out on the Tumen border, checking out businesses, wandering along the border and purchasing a few last DPRK souvenirs. Overall a great first trip for PCE, with our official visas making this a very interesting delegation, and certainly not just a standard tourist trap trip.