On the other hand, the Yatai Group, a conglomerate based in China’s Jilin Province, announced last week that it had signed a 50-year contract with Rason officials to build a sprawling complex around Unsang Harbor to produce cement, concrete and mortar.
It was earmarked in 1991 as a special economic zone, with officials seeing promise in building factories for manufacturing and expanding the Rajin port for shipping. However, little was done to develop Rason until North Korean authorities amended laws in 2010 to give the region some autonomy from Pyongyang, drafted new laws last year to make it easier for foreigners to conduct business and signed a pact with China to jointly develop the zone.
Mr. Abrahamian said Rason officials told him last year that 80 percent of decisions are made locally, 20 percent in Pyongyang, with North Korean firms given the latitude to negotiate and conclude deals with foreign partners on their own before seeking final approval from the government.
A joint economic zone was set up in 2004 in the city of Kaesong near the Demilitarized Zone to do business with South Korean firms. Seoul was a main trading partner for North Korea until the South Korean government forbade nearly all exchanges in 2010 following the deadly sinking of a ship that Seoul blames on Pyongyang. About 120 South Korean firms still operate in Kaesong.
There are signs of progress in construction in Rason, including a paved road from the Chinese city of Yanji. Railroad lines linking Rason to Russia and power substations are under construction, while piers are being rebuilt and expanded.
A model of the future Rason International Commercial Trade Center showed rows of modern buildings sparkling with lights, as well as cars parked under street lamps along tree-lined streets. But Rason has a long way to go, including providing such basics as international banking, Internet and even a reliable power supply.
“I’d like to see some concrete evidence of the deals to provide electricity from the Chinese side of the border,” said Mr. Abrahamian, who spoke from Yanji on Sunday before heading to Rason. “They still apparently have power outages with some regularity. Getting a secure and steady supply of electricity is obviously huge.”
Some 110 companies from 11 countries have booths at the four-day event, Rason’s second international trade fair, organizers told the Associated Press. Chinese companies dominate the exhibition hall.
While the big goods are parked outside, exhibitors inside are showing off everything from toys to medicine, clothes to household appliances made in countries as far away as the Czech Republic and France and as close as factories in Rason. One American is selling T-shirts not far from a North Korean clothing company.
“All these products you see are made or manufactured by our company, and they now are exported to more than 13 countries around the world,” said Pak Kyong-ok, a Rason Hyesong official. “Our products are popular.”
Bob Granger, a British entrepreneur, had something else in mind: a coffee shop in Rason.
“We would like to open in this area, not in the capital, Pyongyang,” said Mr. Granger, managing partner of the Green Apple cafe in Tumen, China, as North Koreans sampled his coffee. “We’d like to be bit out in the country meeting the people.”
Associated Press photographer Kim Kwang Hyon in Rason, researcher Flora Ji in Beijing and business writer Youkyung Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.