- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One of the world’s most hermetically sealed economies is trying to change its image.

As part of mushrooming trade relationship with Russia, North Korean officials Tuesday said they have begun to appoint new “project commissioners” to help Russian economic officials navigate bureaucratic red tape and speed up joint development projects.

The Russian Interfax service reported Tuesday that the first North Korean commissioner will help expedite the 20-year, $25 billion joint venture to overhaul the North’s railway system in return for Russian access to North Korean mineral reserves. The project, which will reportedly modernize up to 2,400 miles of rail, is being called the “Pobeda” project — the Russian word for “victory.”

“It is expected that [the project commissioners] will perform a ‘one contact’ function for the Russian side, increasing the speed and efficiency of interaction with North Korean authorities,” the Russian Far East Development Ministry said in a statement.

Despite occasional attempts at limited market reforms, the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversees one of the most centrally planned and isolated economies in the world. Total two-way trade in 2013 — imports and exports — was estimated at under $8 billion, almost entirely to China and South Korea, and joint ventures with international partners are exceedingly rare.

But economic ties between Mr. Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been warming markedly in recent months. Pyongyang and Moscow on Tuesday formally kicked off the “Year of Russia-North Korea Friendship,” and Interfax reported that North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ro Tu Chol is heading a delegation now in Moscow.

Russia has its own difficulties in the international marketplace, facing a string of sanctions from the United States and the EU over its seizure of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in neighboring Ukraine.

The Voice of America reported in March that the two countries are discussing the creation of “advanced development zones” in the Russian Far East, and the two countries in November agreed on the expansion of a rail link between the Russian border town of Khasan and the North Korean port of Rajin. Russian Far East Development Minister Alexander Galushka said cargo shipments on the link have reached 360,000 metric tons and the volume could quadruple by the end of 2015.

Russian officials say the economic zones could eventually include South Korea, which is far richer than the communist North. Last year, Mr. Putin’s government also agreed to cancel all but $1 billion of the $11 billion debt North Korea owed to the old Soviet Union.

In what could be the most significant and symbolic sign of warming ties, Russian officials have said that the North’s Mr. Kim will attend Mr. Putin’s May 9 celebration beside the Kremlin to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — the first trip outside the country for the new leader since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, four years ago.

Like President Obama and many other Western leaders, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will not attend the Moscow event amid the still-simmering tensions over Ukraine. Citing officials in Seoul, the Reuters news service said Monday Ms. Park will send a lower-level envoy to the ceremony instead.

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