Money on my mind: Visiting North Korea’s Special Economic Zone

Eyes are on Singapore as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepare to hold a historic meeting on June 12. It’s anticipated that discussions between the two leaders will touch on nuclear disarmament and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Trump wants the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons but the way forward may be economically charged. It could be wishful thinking but many are hoping for real, lasting change…

A visit to North Korea’s Special Economic Zone

If money could talk, the coins and currencies in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones would testify to the potential for change in the world’s most reclusive nation.

Last year, I visited the northernmost province of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where I was exposed to commune farms and hillside livelihoods close to the border of China. People warned it would be like stepping into a time machine. And in some ways, it was like I had stepped out of the busyness of the metropolis world I knew, into rural 1960s Korea.

IMG_0047On the last day, we crossed into Rajin Sombong (Rason), a Special Economic Zone in the DPRK and the change was immediately visible.

Dirt roads gave way to stretches of concrete paths and locals wore fancier coats than their comrades in other parts of the country. Its roadside buildings were taller and wider, and wait, did I just see a taxi?

Competing taxi companies are big business in Rason, which also explains the few petrol stations we saw across the Special Economic Zone. We weaved past factories, not empty after the United Nations economic sanctions, and noticed the Emperor Casino, valued at $64 million, catering to affluent Chinese tourists.

The difference in living standards between Rason and its neighbouring provinces was profound but it sparked a degree of hope and curiosity during my visit. Foreign investment may just be the vehicle for change in a country ravaged by the worst drought in 16 years, and burdened by a struggling population.

“Welcome to this special economic zone, It’s a lot more free-er here” said our tour guide.

What’s so ‘special’ about Special Economic Zones?

Development in NKA Special Economic Zone (SEZ) has ‘special’ rules, concessions and benefits for trade. Foreign-owned companies can set up shop in these zones, along with any production facilities that can help it attract the foreign investment it needs.

DPRK’s leader Kim Jong-un began experimenting with a dozen SEZs in 2013 to foster economic development. The area of Rason, short for Rajin-Sonbong, was the first type of Special Economic Zone to be set up in 1991.

The Special Economic Zone is similar to China back in the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping began experimenting with foreign investment before opening the country up to the world. Unlike its Chinese brethren, SEZs in North Korea has largely been a means of containing foreign investment from the rest of the country.

Associate Professor in International Relations and Comparative Politics, Justin Hastings says SEZs benefit locals by enabling a means of income, taking home what’s left after the government’s cut of the pie.

Streets of North Korea“Locals can see how enterprises work and have the chance to interact with non-North Koreans. Although the government tries to minimise that as much as possible, a couple of locals are benefiting and you can argue that it’s better than nothing,” he said.

“We tend to think of North Korea as isolated, but the country can be fairly encouraging of foreign business because they want your money and investment. Informally, North Koreans want to develop – they want to learn how to play the market and build companies that will function. Foreign investment is a learning process to do that,” said Prof. Hastings.

According to Prof. Hastings, the best case scenario from SEZs is to see the spread of foreign investment across the country, in hopes it will lead to internal development.

Despite his hopes that foreign investment will help the local population, Prof. Hastings says realistically, foreign investment alone is unlikely to cause a major sea change.

As Kim Jong-un continues to pivot and prioritise economic development, tomorrow’s meeting with President Trump will either propel North Korea’s economic development or add to the existing pressure from UN sanctions. One can only hope.

*Read more about my trip to North Korea last April or view more travel stories here.

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Back to the streets of Phnom Penh

A few weeks before I was set to travel to Cambodia, Off-White™ opened its first doors to Sydney. I was Christmas shopping when I noticed the line outside, crowds of shoppers waiting for a chance to browse and buy Virgil Abloh’s coveted collection.

Fast forward three weeks. I’m forty minutes from Cambodia’s nascent capital, in the back streets of an underprivileged district. We’re here to visit a community of brick factory workers. They’re happy to see the bags of rice in the back of the van, and while the adults get down to the business of hand to mouth sustenance, it’s the kids that catch my attention.

I’m immediately reminded of the world I’ve come from. A world that consciously writes out a verdict on your past and future by the items on your sleeves. In more ways than one, high-end streetwear labels have come to represent the value of our existence.

On this particular visit, there’s one label that catches me by surprise. A young boy is clothed in signature yellow and white, the stripes on his shirt are sewn together to spell, ‘O-F-F W-H-I-T-E’. I let out a surprised chuckle as I continue to hold the little hands that wrap around my fingers.

Fashion was never intended to be equal – some choose to wait in line for a chance to wear half a paycheck on our shoulders, while others wait here to collect a kilogram of rice.

The proliferation of fake replicas in Cambodia is no surprise

As the hype of the day changes in the west so too does fake fashion in the developing parts of the world. Four years ago when I visited Cambodia, the standard of fake goods was disappointing. Today, the side carts and overcrowded markets proudly boast the freshest streetwear trend of the day: YEEZY knock-offs. Supreme knock-offs, Nike slip-ons, and Off-White™ shirts have made their way into the backstreets of Phnom Penh – the ubiquity of Off-White™ replicas draped on street kids in Cambodia gives ‘streetwear’ a whole new meaning.

Need to know what’s trending in the world? Take a peek at the scraps on the backs of these street kids who are unknowingly caught up in a furious scramble to keep up with the rest of the world.

Myanmar Photo Diary

Yangon and Sittwe, 2015

I’ve always wanted to travel to Myanmar. I finally booked my flight to Yangon in November 2015, coinciding with the country’s momentous elections where I witnessed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi rise to the presidential seat.

My trip began in the vibrant city of Yangon where streets are lined with beautiful buildings left behind by the British.

What did I enjoy the most? Chasing sunsets in Sittwe and exploring Myanmar by train, on the back of a motorbike, by bicycle and bus. Watch the moments here:

If you ever get the chance, soak in the colours of Yangon’s livelihood and taste the streets that tinker on the edge of old and new:

Beauty in the most unlikely of places

Entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) started with a desire to see and experience beauty in the north. And beauty, I did see.

You can’t venture into the DPRK half-heartedly. I chose to leave behind my phone so with empty hands and a blank SD card, we checked out of Tumen, China, and walked over a bridge to North Hamgyong province, the northernmost township of North Korea. After a mandatory bag check, our passports were stamped, marking our welcomed entry into the DPRK.

The beauty of the North Korea was breathtaking. From the winding mountains to the valleys below, each scene would steal a piece of my heart and leave a smile on my face in exchange.

My first meal in the DPRK included a second helping of a delicious seaweed soup – this would be a frequent occurrence. In fact, each meal was unforgettable –  the organic vegetables, wild roots, seafood and otherworldly Korean side dishes would put my mother’s cooking to shame. There were evenings when there was too much food leftover and although some dishes were left untouched, we always made sure the restaurant staff knew just how pleased we were and that my pants definitely felt tighter than yesterday.

We continued our journey across endless mountains and communes to Chongjin, a large port city and the capital of North Hamgyong. Chongjin is North Korea’s third-largest city with a population of over 600,000 and is known for its strategic port and its production of steel.

We visited towering bronze statues of the ruling Kim family, museums dedicated to the grandmother of the current leader and revolutionary sites, significant in its resistance against Japanese occupation. Each visitation was hosted a party official – typically a woman – dressed in her staple khaki and red uniform, providing impressive details about the design and construction of the monument.

What will remain with me is the beauty of the people. I saw it in the way high schoolers interacted with their friends, I saw it in the eyes of students, in the smiles of grandmas…

We had grown attached with our guides as they watched over us, taught us national songs about mountains and tree planting and sat side by side on our bus. There were moments when our interactions with the tour guides was so ordinary – when Mr Lee told us about the butterflies in his stomach as he first held his girlfriend’s hands, when Mr Kim laughed at my poor Chinese pronunciations, when they asked if my fever was improving or when he showed us pictures of his daughter.

The beginning moments with our guides may have been full of pleasantries and careful conversations but by the end of our designated time together, we had shared much more.

The goodbye was difficult, so tender and permanent. There was a real end in our goodbyes. It was as if we were back in time, in an age when technology was limited so people who journeyed across oceans said goodbye as if it were the last.