BEIJING (AP) — North Korea appears to have cracked open its borders in the first significant way since they were shut at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, with the impoverished nation sending a large group of taekwondo athletes and officials through Beijing to an international competition.
The group of around 80 men and women wearing white track suits with the North Korean flag on the front were in the departure hall of Beijing’s international airport. They reportedly arrived Wednesday or Thursday.
The group was expected to take an Air Astana flight to Kazakhstan to compete in the International Taekwon-do Federation World Championships, according to Japanese and South Korean media. The competition is being held in Astana through Aug. 30.
North Korea has very limited air connections at the best of times, and international travel all but ended when it closed its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. How badly North Koreans were affected by the illness is unknown. Most of the country’s 26 million people have no access to vaccines, lack basic health care and are prevented from sharing information with the outside world.
In September 2022, North Korea resumed freight train service with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline.
On Thursday, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers that North Korea is preparing to further reopen its border gradually as part of its efforts to revitalize its struggling economy.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that North Korea’s economy shrank each year in 2020-2022 and its gross domestic product last year was 12% less than in 2016, according to Yoo Sang-bum, one of the lawmakers who attended the briefing.
The apparent resumption of travel came as the U.N. rights chief, Volker Türk, told the first open meeting of the U.N. Security Council on North Korean human rights since 2017 that the country was increasing its repression and people were becoming more desperate, with some reported to be starving as the economic situation worsens.
Türk said North Korea’s restrictions are even more extensive, with guards authorized to shoot any unauthorized person approaching the border and with almost all foreigners, including U.N. staff, still barred from the country.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.