RASON, North Korea (AP) — Tucked into North Korea's far northeast, the cities of Rajin and Sonbong have remained largely out of reach despite being designated a special economic zone 20 years ago.
Now, as part of a national economic push, the region has a new name — Rason — and laborers are scrambling to build a road to China they hope will bring in tourists, investors and manufacturers.
Last month, Associated Press photographer Ng Han Guan was among a group of foreign journalists and Chinese travel agents invited to see Rason firsthand. Flying from Beijing to the Chinese city of Yanji, they traveled by bus to Rason in North Korea.
Before boarding a creaky cruise ship and sailing overnight to Mount Kumgang, they got a chance to tour the special economic zone being primed to serve as a trade and manufacturing hub between North Korea and neighboring Russia and China. Later, they spent 15 minutes in a local market where tables were piled high with Chinese-made goods.
Ng discovered a city where laborers pile into the back of a truck for transport and workers crouch along roads and railway tracks working with their hands. Most people get around on foot or by bicycle, but taxis and foreign-made cars also rumble down dusty streets past neatly whitewashed homes lying behind newly built brick walls.
Fashionable and fastidious, the women of Rason favor dress pants and platform shoes. The children run around in shirts and shorts imprinted with cartoon characters, some gobbling down banana-flavored ice pops.
Everywhere, posters and billboards praise late President Kim Il Sung, whose revolutionary activities in Rajin as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter are marked on a map in the city. "The great leader Kim Il Sung will be with us forever" reads an ode to Kim painted in red on monuments across the nation.
Newer posters urge the people to work together in building the economy — the very government policy behind the bid to transform Rason into an economic hub. "Dedicate everything to improving the people's living!" says one.
Against the backdrop of billboards depicting workers and soldiers gearing up for battle, daily life continues: a woman lays squid to dry on the tiles of a traditional Korean rooftop, children coo over a tabby kitten with a pink bow tied around its chest, a girl in pigtails totes a Chinese shopping bag in one hand and a gold toy gun in the other.