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First North Korean international flight lands in Beijing since Covid-19

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An Air Koryo flight at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuessday. The flight was the first North Korean airliner to touch down in China in three years. [YONHAP]
An Air Koryo flight at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuessday. The flight was the first North Korean airliner to touch down in China in three years. [YONHAP]

A North Korean state-owned airliner passenger flight landed in Beijing on Tuesday, the first time in three years that a North Korean airliner landed in China following Covid-19 lockdowns.

Air Koryo’s flight JS151, which departed from Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport at 9:20 a.m.

The initial landing time was scheduled for 9:50 a.m.

It is unclear as to who boarded the plane, but a diplomatic license plate linked to the North Korean Embassy in China was registered at the airport parking area.

However, the flight may also repatriate North Korean students, workers and officials stranded in China after Pyongyang sealed its border during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the Beijing airport’s flight schedule, an Air Koryo flight was set to depart for Pyongyang at 1:05 p.m. North Korean passengers were seen at the check-in counter loading their luggage.

Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based tour agency specializing in North Korean visits, on Aug.10 said North Korea plans to reopen its borders.

“Workers, students, businesspeople, diplomats, and all kinds of folks who were in China and elsewhere are still outside of the country [when the borders closed in 2020],” Koryo Tours said on its website. “The opening of the North Korean border is currently for North Koreans, but we expect this to be expanded soon afterwards. Initially, this will likely be for important incoming figures such as diplomats and NGO staff, etc.

“Eventually, tourists will follow.”

Earlier, a commercial flight from North Korea was scheduled to arrive at 9:30 a.m. Monday, with the return flight planned for 1:05 p.m. on the same day. However, these flights were later canceled.

Passengers check in luggage for Air Koryo, North Korea's state-owned airline, at the check-in counter at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuesday. [YONHAP]
Passengers check in luggage for Air Koryo, North Korea’s state-owned airline, at the check-in counter at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuesday. [YONHAP]

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday said that it has approved the resuming of North Korea’s Air Koryo.

“After the release of China’s overall plan for the implementation of Class B and B Control of the new crown virus infection, starting Jan. 8, 2023, applications from Chinese and foreign airlines to resume international passenger flights will resume,” said Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “During the summer-autumn flight season transition in 2023, the Chinese side approved North Korea’s Air Koryo Pyongyang-Beijing-Pyongyang and other passenger routes’ scheduled flight plans according to the airline’s application and procedures.”

North Korea has been gradually easing its border restrictions, particularly in light of recent visits by Chinese and Russian government officials, including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, to attend a military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.

Last week, two buses from North Korea were observed crossing the border into China over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge linking the North Korean city of Sinuiju and the Chinese city of Dandong.

These buses were believed to be transporting around 100 North Koreans who took part in the International Taekwo-Do Federation (ITF) World Championships in Kazakhstan, where the North Korean team’s demonstration was a prominent feature.

Reports also indicate that flights between Vladivostok and Pyongyang are expected to resume soon.

“So far only a couple of flights are confirmed, and it seems likely that these are specifically for returning North Koreans,” Koryo Tour posted on its Website on Tuesday. “It is a sign that DPRK airspace is opening to flights again.”

BY LEE HO-JEONG, HYEON YE-SEUL [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]