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European cyclists descend on North Korean port town

Reuters

By James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) - Dozens of European cyclists rolled into the North Korean port town of Rajin this week for the last leg of a rare two-stage race from China to North Korea.

Clad in skin-tight shiny outfits and accompanied by a fleet of support cars, the 47 cyclists from Sweden, Germany and more than 10 other countries rode from China to the Wonjong border crossing to take on the 50-km (31-mile) road into Rajin.

Such free-wheeling travel by foreigners is unusual in North Korea, a reclusive and isolated state under international sanctions for nuclear and missile tests.

"They were really good bike roads, some of the best roads you can have for biking," Gaavert Waag, manager of Nordic Ways - the events company behind the race - told Reuters by telephone.

"We wanted to do something that was nearly impossible to do," he said. "They stopped all the traffic for us. Not that they have much traffic but they closed all the roads for our bikes."

Labourers from China, North Korea's closest ally, finished work on the main road between Rajin and the border last year in a Chinese-backed effort to upgrade a dusty track into a functioning trade route.

Rajin is one of two towns that make up the Rajin-Songbon, or Rason, special economic zone in the northeast corner of North Korea. Both Russia and China have access to Rajin as a port and have invested in updating infrastructure.

The cycling race follows Sunday's completion of a Russian-operated train line that links Rason with the Russian Far East town of Khasan, part of a more ambitious plan to build a railway from Europe to Asia.

First designated a special economic zone in the mid 1990s, Rason is popular among ethnic Korean Chinese businessmen looking to set up small factories and take advantage of cheap labour.

In recent years, the area has become a popular destination for Western Christian missionaries wanting to start social projects such as bakeries and orphanages from which to conduct their evangelical work.

Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who had been working as a Christian missionary in China and North Korea, was arrested at the Wonjong border crossing near Rason last year.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Robert Birsel)

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