North Korea resumes limited commercial flights to China in major step to reopening borders

Three flights per week are planned between Beijing and Pyongyang

North Korea completed its first commercial airline flight since the start of the pandemic, marking a major step towards ending the strict border controls maintained throughout the pandemic. 

"During the summer-autumn flight season transition in 2023, China approved Air Koryo’s scheduled flight plans from Pyongyang to Beijing to Pyongyang and other passenger routes requested by the airline according to procedures," Wang Wenbin, the foreign ministry spokesperson, said.

The Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang landed in Beijing at around 9:17 a.m. local time, Reuters reported. Western travel agency Koryo Tours, which organizes trips into and throughout North Korea, stressed that the flight is currently a special case aimed to retrieve nationals stranded in China. 

"This flight isn’t a full resumption of the route yet, it is a special flight for Koreans only to take people home again after years being stuck overseas, the same as the flights that seem likely to happen soon from Vladivostok," Simon Cockerell, general manager at Koryo Tours, said.

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The Chinese foreign ministry announced Monday that it would allow flights between neighboring countries as it continued to roll back heavy pandemic-era restrictions.  

Pyongyang Beijing flight

The status of an Air Koryo flight from North Korea's capital Pyongyang (second from top) is seen on an information board at Beijing Capital international airport on August 21, 2023. (Oliver Hotham/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

However, the Beijing Capital International Airport website now lists three flights from Pyongyang to Beijing every week — one on each of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings — according to the South China Morning Post.

Air Koryo plane

An Air Koryo plane is seen at Beijing Capital Airport on August 22, 2023. North Korea's first international commercial flight in three years landed in Beijing on August 22 after the country has been largely closed off from the outside world since ear (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Train lines between border cities in North Korea and China will also resume this month, with the first rail freight shipments between the Chinese city Dandong and North Korean city Sinuiju reportedly happening in early August, Radio Free Asia reported. 

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The shipments would help greatly alleviate the severe economic and supply crisis that has gripped North Korea years into its pandemic response. The situation became so bleak that people starved due to the great famine, and many chose death over the slow suffering. 

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Trade had initially resumed earlier this year along the train routes, but China shut it down again after just a few months following outbreaks in both countries. 

An official from a trade organization in the North Pyongan province told RFA that all trading companies received orders from the Central Committee to "prepare import and export materials to load." 

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"They have been ordering goods from their Chinese counterparts to import construction materials and basic food. They are trying to secure foreign currency to pay for the imports," he said.

COVID-19 china stranded

Two North Korean men (L and 2nd R) walk through the arrivals section at Beijing Capital Airport after the arrival of Air Koryo flight JS151 on August 22, 2023.  (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Despite declaring victory over COVID-19 last year, North Korea has not reopened at the same rate as other countries, only welcoming its first foreign delegation last month. The hermit kingdom hosted Russian defense officials and members of the Chinese Political Bureau Central Committee during its 70th anniversary celebrations. 

"China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers. Our two parties and the two countries have had a good tradition of friendly exchanges," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning. 

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"This year marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War," he added. "Having a high-level Chinese delegation visit the DPRK and mark the occasion shows the high importance both sides attach to our bilateral ties."

Fox News Digital’s Timothy Nerozzi contributed to this report.