China's two recently opened sea routes from its northeast to Japan by way of Korea and Russia are the first of their kind.

Jilin provincial officials said the routes will "initiate a new stage for transport in northeastern Asia," by cutting transit times and costs.One route links the western coast of Japan and Korea for bulk voyages by way of Chongjin and Rajin in North Korea. The other runs by way of Russia's Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Zarubino and Posyet to Pusan in South Korea and Niigata in Japan.

Cargoes traded between Jilin and adjacent Heilongjiang and the neighboring countries used to be transshipped through ports on Bohai Bay. The new routes reduce the distance, time and cost involved, officials said.

Going via Chongjin, the distance from Jilin to the west coast of Japan is below 500 sea miles, half the distance from Dalian, the conventional gateway.

"The routes are beneficial to multilateral economic cooperation in northeastern Asia, with profits yielded for Russia and North Korea for use of their harbors, and deeper involvement in development of the Tumen River Delta," a Jilin official said.

China's northeastern provinces come within 10 miles of the Sea of Japan. The territory between the coast and Jilin is divided between North Korea and Russia along the banks of the Tumen River.

North Korea is promoting a free-trade zone based on Rajin and Sonbong. China is working with North Korea to electrify the railway and build a bridge to improve access between Jilin and those North Korean port cities.

Rajin isn't much changed since Japanese rule ended in 1945. Some rail links with China must be reopened after being closed in 1984 for lack of use.

The U.N. Development Program says North Korea is completing two alumina terminals and a bulk fertilizer terminal at Rajin.

China has inaugurated rail transport over the Tumen to North Korea's Port of Najin and even imports cars from capitalist South Korea through the communist North.

On the Russian front, a double-track railroad between the Chinese city of Hunchun and Zarubino is expected to be complete by the end of this year, with full operation likely to begin next year.

China is laying five miles of track inside Russia and financing some of the total 50-mile rail link to Zarubino on concessional terms.

Northeast Asia Railway & Port Group of Jilin, China's only railway firm funded by public shares, also has contracts to refit Zarubino and Najin for large cargo and grain ships.

The company hopes to revive the North Korean oil port at Unggi, which was almost shut down when the collapse of the Soviet Union ended North Korea's access to cheap Russian oil.