Beijing: North Korea’s national airline was set to make its first commercial flight in over three years on Monday, only for it to be abruptly cancelled at the last minute.
North Korea has been largely closed off from the outside world since early 2020, when it shut its borders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Journalists gathered on Monday at Beijing’s Capital International Airport to await Air Koryo flight JS151 from Pyongyang, due to arrive at 09:50 am (0150 GMT).
But almost two hours after its scheduled arrival, a signboard in the terminal unexpectedly signalled it had been cancelled, prompting groans of disappointment from media waiting to see some of the isolated North’s first international travellers in years.
Beijing airport customer service told AFP that Air Koryo — Pyongyang’s beleaguered national air carrier — had not given a reason for the cancellation.
Asked about the cancellation Monday, China’s foreign ministry only said that it had approved restarting commercial flights between Beijing and Pyongyang.
“During the summer and autumn flight season… the Chinese side approved flight plans for passengers such as the Pyongyang-Beijing and Beijing-Pyongyang routes of Air Koryo,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing.
AFP reporters who knocked on the bolted glass doors of Air Koryo’s Beijing office on Monday afternoon startled a vest-clad man dozing on the sofa inside the darkened room.
A second man who opened the door responded to AFP’s questions by repeatedly saying “we don’t know”.
He referred reporters to North Korean ruling party newspaper the Rodong Sinmun for “accurate” information, as a third man slipped inside, his shirt bearing a badge with portraits of the country’s two former leaders.
– Taekwondo delegation –
After three years of Covid-induced isolation, there are increasing signs Pyongyang may be becoming more flexible on border controls.
Chinese and Russian officials attended a military parade in the North Korean capital last month — the first foreign dignitaries to visit the country in years.
Last week Pyongyang allowed a delegation of athletes to attend a taekwondo competition in Kazakhstan.
The Yonhap and Kyodo news agencies reported that a group of people, believed to be North Korean athletes, had crossed the land border into China last Wednesday before travelling on to Beijing, then flying to Central Asia.
Monday was expected to see Air Koryo conduct its first commercial flight in over three years.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which manages relations with the North, told AFP there was “absolutely nothing we are aware of” regarding the cancellation of the flight.
“There have been various signs regarding North Korea’s reopening of its borders,” an official said
“But it is difficult to determine yet whether it is a full-scale opening of the border or a fairly limited and controlled opening,” they added.
Specialist website NK News reported Monday that Air Koryo was set to carry out two flights from Russia’s Vladivostok to Pyongyang on Friday and next Monday.