North Korea abruptly cancels first post-Covid international commercial flight

North Korea’s national airline’s first commercial flight since it largely closed itself off from the world in early 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic has been abruptly cancelled.

Journalists gathered on Monday at Beijing’s Capital international airport to await Air Koryo flight JS151 from Pyongyang, due to arrive at 9.50am.

But almost two hours after its scheduled arrival, the arrivals board in the terminal showed it as cancelled, prompting groans of disappointment from media waiting to see some of the isolated country’s first international travellers in years.

Beijing airport customer service told AFP that Air Koryo, Pyongyang’s national air carrier, had not given a reason for the cancellation.

Asked about the cancellation, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said only 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,” 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 man dozing on the sofa in the darkened room.

A man sleeps in the closed Air Koryo office in Beijing
A man sleeps in the closed Air Koryo office in Beijing. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

A second man who opened the door responded to AFP’s questions by repeatedly saying: “We don’t know.”

He referred reporters to the 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.

After three years of Covid-induced isolation as it closed its borders, there are increasing signs Pyongyang may be becoming more flexible.

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.

Air Koryo was to conduct its first commercial flight in over three years. Seoul’s unification ministry, which manages relations with North Korea, 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.

NK News reported on Monday that Air Koryo was due to carry out two flights from Russia’s Vladivostok to Pyongyang on Friday and next Monday.