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China Approves The Resumption Of Flights From North Korea

Aug 31,2023

On 21 August 2023, Chinese authorities announced the approval of flight resumptions to China by Air Koryo, the flag carrier and only airline of North Korea. Commercial flights between Beijing and Pyongyang are set to resume for the first time since the authoritarian state closed its borders in the wake of COVID-19.

Today, North Korea's first commercial flight for the pandemic was set to take off bound for Beijing, however, the flight was canceled at the last moment. Officially, no reasons have yet been given for this sudden cancelation.

Prior to the pandemic, Air Koryo operated flights to six different destinations across Asia, including Beijing, Chongjin, Macau, Samjiyon, Shenyang, and Vladivostok. The carrier operated these flights using a combination of Russian Antonov, Ilyushin, and Tupolev aircraft.

Three years since flights stopped

Upon the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea maintained one of the most stringent border control policies and froze most relations with the outside world. Recently, however, there have been signs that the nation was beginning to open up its borders to the few allies it maintains.

Chinese and Russian dignitaries visited Pyongyang last month, becoming the first foreigners to visit the country in years. The diplomats were visiting North Korea to attend a military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, which is known in the nation as "Victory Day."

Last week, the first North Koreans were permitted to leave the country as well. The nation sent a delegation of athletes to attend an international taekwondo competition hosted in Kazakhstan.

According to Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, flights have now been conditionally approved to resume for the summer and fall seasons. Chinese authorities are yet to indicate whether Air Koryo services will be approved for indefinite resumption.

Air Koryo in a post-pandemic world

Air Koryo's pre-pandemic route network emphasized connecting the North Korean capital to destinations in countries with the strongest diplomatic relations with the hermit kingdom. Cities such as Macau, for example, are well-known as favored destinations by the North Korean elite.

Air Koryo has often been seen as the world's most mysterious airline and has remained unpredictable throughout its history. The carrier's operations are almost always subject to the whims of the current political landscape. However, given recent developments and tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, it can be difficult to predict what the carrier's return to full operations in a post-pandemic world could actually look like.

The carrier's aging fleet of Soviet-era aircraft is continuing to become more and more of a liability for the airline. With mounting sanctions and old aircraft models becoming more and more rare, it is likely becoming increasingly difficult for Air Koryo to find spare parts for its fleet.

One aircraft, the quad-engined Ilyushin Il-62, was introduced in the early 1960s and was only the sixth four-engined long-range aircraft to take to the skies. It will be fascinating to see what direction Air Koryo will take its aging fleet and unique operations in a post-pandemic world.

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