25.11.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is the DPRK opening up to the world?

North Korean passenger jets

All walls fall eventually, and with the coronavirus decline, it also seems that the days of “self-isolation by the whole country” are coming to an end.

Remember that North Korea implemented “emergency anti-epidemic measures” in May 2022 amid the “fever epidemic” and quarantined people at the border starting in early 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea’s leader declared victory against the virus in August 2022, following which rail freight trade resumed.

According to Korean specialist and journalist Oleg Kiryanov, the DPRK’s coming discovery has been discussed for quite some time; many rumors on the subject have surfaced during the last year and a half or two years, but none of them have been substantiated.
People were not allowed in even when the DPRK resumed railroad ties with China and Russia.

On May 24, satellite pictures revealed that North Korean passenger jets were receiving unusually extensive repair. Specifically, it was discovered that, since early May, a number of Air Koryo aircraft (Tu-134, Tu-154, and Tu-204) have quickly flown past repair hangars at Sunan Airport, which is located close to Pyongyang.
They have been mostly parked for the past three years, and when they have been repaired, it has taken longer. This has raised rumors that air travel with China, which was halted because to COVID-19, may resume.

Early in July 2023, North Korea did away with the requirement of masks.

The first indication of fresh communication between Pyongyang and the outside world came from the arrival of official delegations from China and Russia, who participated in events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War in late July 2023. Later, North Korea was visited by many Russian aircraft.

Even earlier, after years of delays brought on by border controls, the new ambassador of the People’s Republic of China touched down in Pyongyang.

A tourism law was approved by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea on July 30. Its goals are to promote tourism and ensure that international visitors have a comfortable stay in the nation. The RoK media said that “the North’s efforts in this direction are due to the fact that the tourism industry is not subject to international sanctions, being a legal channel for earning foreign currency.” Prior to this, the North had taken steps to create specialized infrastructure.

Early in August 2023, the ROK media revealed that, based on statements from representatives of the Beijing-based travel company Koryo Tours, which specializes in planning trips to the DPRK, Pyongyang will soon open its borders to the limited return of citizens who have been abroad for an extended period of time due to COVID-19—workers, students, business people, diplomats, and so forth. In the future, foreign diplomats and employees of various international and non-governmental organizations should be expected to arrive in the DPRK.

On August 9, Radio Free Asia claimed that athletes from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would compete in World Cup qualifiers.

On August 15, 2023, traffic was reported on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which spans the Yalu (Amnok) river and connects the cities of Sinuiju in North Korea and Dandong in China. A bus and an RV traveled from the Chinese side to the DPRK and returned later that afternoon, according to multiple accounts. Regarding who and where they were bringing, experts cannot agree on whether it was a trial run for the border crossing procedure or the transfer of sailors arrested on smuggling charges to the North.

Vehicles were once more observed on the China-North Korea border early on August 16.
About an hour later, two buses that had departed Dandong for Sinuiju arrived back. It is thought that on August 17, after arriving in Beijing, they may have brought a group of athletes from North Korea to the PRC to compete in the ITF Taekwondo World Championships in Kazakhstan. For the first time since the nation closed its borders in the early months of 2020 owing to a coronavirus outbreak, athletes from North Korea participated in foreign events.

Air travel between Pyongyang and Vladivostok is set to resume on August 21, according to reports from ROK media, quoting Russian colleagues. The first flight will take place on August 25 and will be followed by one on August 28. The representative office of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Vladivostok has advised that plane tickets from Pyongyang to Vladivostok will set you back $230. One listing places the cost of flights from Pyongyang to Beijing at 1,750 yuan ($238). The Tu-204 aircraft of Air Koryo will fly between Pyongyang and Vladivostok. Previously, this route had two flights per week.

Journalists gathered at Beijing International Airport on the relevant day to await Air Koryo flight JS151 from Pyongyang. But about two hours after it was supposed to arrive, the first commercial flight was abruptly canceled, according to a signboard in the terminal. When an AFP journalist visited Air Koryo’s Beijing office, she saw that the glass doors were locked shut. The airline did not provide an explanation for the cancellation of the trip.

The flight took place the following day, on August 22. Furthermore, the scoreboard indicated (check-in and gate) a return flight with the flight number JS152. The presence or absence of passengers on Flight JS151 could not be established; however, a vehicle with North Korean Embassy plates was seen in the airport parking area, which could signal the arrival or departure of a high-ranking official or diplomat.

The South Korean Ministry of Reunification responded with the usual answer “North Korea has opened its border in a limited way in an attempt to stabilize the food crisis.” “The Secret regime is striving to recover from the damage caused by floods and other national disasters by mobilizing all available resources to increase crop production”

On August 23, the People’s Republic of China’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) permitted North Korean airline Air Koryo to conduct scheduled flights between Pyongyang and Beijing every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from March 26 to October 28.
Simultaneously, flight China has not applied to resume flight service between China and the DPRK.

The KCNA claimed on August 26 that “Our citizens who had been abroad were able to return home as a result of the State Emergency and Anti-Epidemic Headquarters’ decision to settle the discharge of anti-epidemic work in accordance with the alleviation of the malignant pandemic’s spread worldwide.”
In one week, each of them will be kept under close medical surveillance in their individual lockups.” “Adjust the level of anti-epidemic measures in view of the stabilization of the pandemic situation worldwide,” was the decision made by the Epidemic Prevention Headquarters.

For the first time in three and a half years, an Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang landed in Vladivostok on August 26. The plane was apparently headed out of the North Korean capital when it arrived empty.
The plane returned a few hours later. On August 28, there was another flight from Pyongyang to Vladivostok.

More than 300 DPRK citizens reportedly left Dandong for Sinuiju on August 28 in roughly ten busses that crossed the border multiple times, according to various reports. Since the isolated nation closed its border in January 2020 owing to a pandemic, it was the first time North Koreans had traveled home by road.

Two days later, on August 28, an aircraft carrying nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who had been in this country since the start of the pandemic left Vladivostok airport.

The first passenger train from Dandong to Xinyi Zhu in three years and seven months passed through at approximately 11 p.m. on August 31. On Thursday, the athletes’ delegation from the World Taekwondo Championship, which was held in Kazakhstan, arrived home. Although it is possible that some DPRK residents returned to North Korea with them, the resumption of regular routes and transportation is implausible.

On September 26, ROK media reported that North Korea has purportedly permitted foreigners to enter the country since September 25, citing Chinese TV channel CCTV and an unnamed source, and that the quarantine period had been cut to two days. However, North Korean state media has failed to report on the change, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that North Korea has not alerted the country of the border opening to outsiders.

Voice of America said on October 10 that a large number of trucks and containers had accumulated at the Dandong customs station (photos dated October 5), which could mean that China and the DPRK are starting to conduct overland trade again. This pattern was previously observed here on September 7, 12, and 14.

At approximately the same time, NK News reported on a modification to the DPRK’s present quarantine laws. Previously, the disinfection center in Sinŭiju received around 70% of all imported products entering North Korea. There, they were sterilized and left for two to three months. Although quarantine restrictions have been partially lifted during the past few months, cargo entering the nation are still being transported to the disinfection center, although their time there has been cut down to around a week, according to recent satellite images.

On October 11, Georgy Zinoviev, the director of the First Asia Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated that both the DPRK and Russia have the political will to gradually open their borders. “We expect that the gradual opening of the borders with the PRC will be a critical factor in the technical plan that will facilitate the realization of historic agreements.” In addition, the envoy said that as the North advances in combating the coronavirus outbreak, the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang is returning to function “in full”.

October 14, U.S. website 38 North claimed that new satellite photographs show more cars on the Yalu River bridge, which connects Dandong and Sinŭiju. “The exact nature and purpose of this movement are unclear, but it comes after increased activity around the Chinese side of the bridge and speculation that it may soon fully open.”

The 3-kilometer-long cable-stayed bridge was finished in 2014, but because of COVID-19 quarantine and delays in building associated infrastructure on the North Korean side, it remained unusable. The surrounding infrastructure has not seen much work since the bridge was finished in 2014, so the massive collection of equipment appears somewhat out of the ordinary. It is known that the DPRK started construction on many buildings in 2020, including a road that connected a bridge to the city of Sinŭiju (perhaps a customs and immigration facility). The project was put on hold in 2020. Checkpoints and imposing obstacles were erected early this year on the Chinese side.

On October 16, NK News reported that “a Tu-204-100 passenger plane of Air Koryo Airlines flew from Vladivostok to Pyongyang…,” citing the aviation tracking website FlightRadar24. Since August 25, there have been three flights along this route. The airport’s schedule contained no information about this flight, and its press office was not reachable for comment.”

On October 17, North Korea announced that it had traveled to Perm, Russia, to take part in the 11th International Sports Forum, sending a group of sports officials headed by Sports Minister Kim Il-guk.

The analysts’ attention was drawn to the border situation in light of the warming relations between Russia and North Korea, particularly the speculations surrounding the arms sale. Here, if we compile the information from many sources, we discovered roughly the following:

  • Since the end of August, Rason Port has resumed handling containerized cargo, according to satellite photos obtained by NK News. The report contains no precise information about what, where, or whose vessels are imported or exported.
  • The DPRK-owned cargo-passenger ferry Man Gyong Bong moved from Wonsan to Rajin, according to satellite pictures, suggesting that trade in goods and persons may soon resume between Rajin and the port of Vladivostok.
  • Beyond Parallel reports that since the end of August, Russian ships have shipped at least six cargo loads from Rajin; at least two Russian-flagged ships, the Maria and the Angela, have made at least five trips between Rajin port and the small TOF base at Konyushkovo, which is 1.5 km from the village of Danube (NK News, British Royal United Defence Research Institute – RUSI); the most recent trip was between October 10 and 14;
  • satellite photos showed that between October 13 and October 16, the Russian ship transported more than 58 containers, each measuring six meters;
  • Nighttime NASA satellite photographs reveal bright lights close to the port of Rajin and two kilometers from the bridge (on the North Korean side) that connects Russia and the DPRK. Trains from North Korea typically halt here en route to Russia, and these facts are interpreted as indicators of increased rail activity between the two nations.

The DPRK’s state-owned airline, Air Koguo, conducted its next passenger flights between Pyongyang and Vladivostok on October 20 and 23. “The flight schedule for November has not yet been set, but there is a possibility that the movement of people between Russia and the DPRK will intensify over time,” the South Korean writers stated.

On October 24, 2023, about 300 North Koreans returned to their homeland through the Dandong-Sinŭiju crossing in 7-8 buses . They were said to include laborers, traders, etc. The idea of forcing defectors back to the DPRK is not being discussed. The ROK media, on the other hand, is aggressively spreading rumors that several hundred people have already been moved to the North. Human rights organizations contend that although though these individuals have committed crimes, they are political refugees and should be released, regardless of their criminal history, as they face execution or torture in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The PRC authorities view these individuals as either unlawful migrants or criminals.

Yonhap News Agency said on November 2 that Air Koryo had started operating regularly again between Pyongyang and Beijing. The flight from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport was allegedly planned to arrive in Beijing at 12:30 p.m. and return to the North Korean capital at 3:05 p.m., according to the website of Beijing International Airport.
Air Koryo conducted flights on October 24, 26, and 28, according to Washington-based media station Radio Free Asia. This confirms the idea that scheduled flights have entirely recovered to pre-COVID levels, with flights operating every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Resuming regular air service was one of the topics discussed during the summit between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin on September 13, according to Russian officials. Another rumor suggests that Air Koryo has also resumed its flight schedule to Vladivostok to COVID from October 16, flying every Monday and Friday.

But at the time of writing, the author’s sources indicate that borders are largely closed; those who have stayed overseas are returning home, and those who have been waiting a long time are arriving. But at this rate, there will soon be students to Russian universities and scientific delegations to Pyongyang. Which the author awaits with particular anxiety.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook”.

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