The country’s flagship airline last carried out overseas commercial operations in 2020, before Pyongyang imposed border restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.
Air Koryo flight JS151 took off from Pyongyang and landed at Beijing International airport on 9.17am, after the Chinese foreign ministry on Monday confirmed approving North Korea‘s state carrier flights.
“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,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was quoted as saying by South China Morning Post.
It wasn’t immediately clear who was aboard on the flight, but Western tour companies that operated in North Korea said it appeared to be a special flight that would, on return, carry back North Koreans who had been trapped in China for years after border closures.
It is also unclear how many from the North Korean community – mostly students and people who work in restaurants and government-related jobs in areas such as tourism and cultural promotion – still remain in China.
The travel curb had hurt not just ordinary people but diplomats as well.
The current Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Wang Yajun, had to wait 15 months after being named for the job before he could enter the country this March to take up his role.
Many foreign delegations closed their embassies in Pyongyang because they were unable to rotate staff or ship in supplies for much of the pandemic.
The flight comes amid a slow reopening for one of the world’s most politically and economically isolated countries.
Cargo train and ship traffic has slowly increased over the past year, but North Korea has only just begun to allow some international passenger travel.
Air Koryo has also scheduled flights to Vladivostok on Friday, a diplomat told Reuters, in what would be its first flights to Russia since the pandemic.
“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,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager at Beijing-based Koryo Tours.
“The same as the flights that seem likely to happen soon from Vladivostok.”
Additional reporting by agencies