Rajin-Sonbong (Rason) clarification

UPDATE: In addition to the information below, the Choson Ilbo reports that  the DPRK’s former trade minister has been appointed mayor of Rason.  According to the article:

The North Korean regime has appointed former foreign trade minister Rim Kyong-man as the mayor of the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Special Zone, which was promoted to a special city in January. A source said Rim was appointed as part of a reshuffle and new regulations for the city.

Rim is known as an expert in trade who served as the minister for foreign trade from April 2004 to March 2008, and headed the North Korean trade representatives to Dalian in China. He also toured Africa (June 2005), Latin America (November 2005), Libya and Malaysia (June 2006) and Russia (March 2007) as the leader of the North Korean economic delegation.

“It seems that North Korea appointed Rim, who is very experienced in trade with foreign countries, with an aim to further open Rajin-Sonbong as a free trade area,” the source added.

ORIGINAL POST: The designation of Rason as a “special city” this week left me a bit confused, but I believe I have sorted it out.

This week, Reuters reported:

“The city of Rason has become a special city,” the North’s KCNA news agency said in a brief dispatch on Monday.

And Yonhap reported:

North Korea designated Rason, the country’s first free trade zone, as a “special city” on Monday, the North’s official news media reported.

North Korea designated Rason and nearby Sonbong, located on the country’s northernmost coast close to both China and Russia, as an economic free trade zone in 1991, though foreign investment has never materialized.

According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) monitored here, the Standing Committee of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly designated Rason as a special city in a decree.

So aside from the fact that Rason was named “special” there were no other details given.  What does it mean to be a “special city”?

Well, today the nice Chongryun individual in Japan who updates the KCNA web page finally came back from vacation and posted the story to the official KCNA web page.  Here is what it says:

Rason City Designated as Municipality
Pyongyang, January 5 (KCNA) — Rason City was designated as a municipality.

The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK said in its decree promulgated on Jan. 4:

1. Rason City shall become a municipality.

2. The DPRK Cabinet and relevant organs shall take practical measures to implement the decree.

Without seeing any additional information it seems that what has actually happened is that the municipalities of Rajin and Sonbong have been dissolved, merged, or been made subject to a newly created Rason municipal government which controls both cities.  So Rajin-Sonbong is dead.  Long live Rason.

So why would the North Korean government do this?  Here is one theory: Since the district was under the direct control of Pyongyang (not the provincial government of North Hamgyong), the DPRK government simply thought that two municipal governments in the special economic zone were one more than was necessary.  So this could mean something significant–in terms of the DPRK’s intent to increase foreign trade–or it may not.

If anyone else has a better idea please let me know in the comments.

UPDATE:

1. Here is a decent story in the AFP which interprets the change as a significant policy signal.

2. Here is a decent story in the Daily NK which offers lots of additional information.

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