North Korea ends total lockdown policy

The story of North Korea’s return began about two weeks ago. Around 80 people in white sports suits with the North Korean flag on their chests were spotted in the departure hall of Beijing Airport. The delegation was clearly on its way to Astana, Kazakhstan for the ITF Taekwondo World Championships, making it the first North Korean sports team to go abroad since the pandemic began in early 2020.

A few days later, the specialist portal NK News reported that the participants from North Korea had been the stars of the opening ceremony at the said World Cup. And now that the championship has come to a close this Wednesday, pictures of the awards ceremony with people holding North Korea’s flag can be found online. So North Korea was actually at the start – and in a good mood, as they say in the jargon of sports.

As of early 2020, North Korea appeared to be no longer a part of the world

The regime of ruler Kim Jong-un now appears to be slowly emerging from its self-imposed isolation. Tight borders were his main tool against mass coronavirus infections that would have overwhelmed North Korea’s inadequate health system. From the beginning of 2020, almost nothing and nobody was allowed into the country.

Aid organizations and embassies vacated their offices in Pyongyang. Humanitarian programs had to stop. Even the usual smuggling activities on the border with China were no longer possible. China sent survival necessities with ships calling at Namp’o Port; China needs North Korea as a buffer zone between itself and US soldiers in South Korea.

Most other countries in the world returned to normal in 2022. In early May, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic over. But initially little changed in North Korea’s isolation. The party dictatorship fired nuclear-capable test rockets to demonstrate its dangerousness and otherwise seemed no longer a part of the world.

The state airline flies to Vladivostok and Beijing again

The first signs of an opening turned out to be false hope. In early June, a North Korean team of 14 men and women entered the Olympic weightlifting qualifying tournament in Havana, Cuba. But the team didn’t come. Only now is something really stirring in the opaque realm of Kim Jong-un. At the end of July, North Korea observers noticed: On the 70th anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War in 1953, Kim Jong-un received visitors from abroad for the first time since the pandemic began. There was a delegation from Russia with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and a delegation from China with Politburo member Li Hongzhong.

With the high-ranking guests, North Korea certainly wanted to demonstrate its close ties with the US adversaries rather than an end to the border closures. Nevertheless, the impression remained that the regime had overcome its greatest fear of corona.

A little later, the US soldier Travis King ran across the border in the joint security zone with South Korea at Panmunjeom. A life-threatening action, allegedly there was a shooting order to prevent intruders from bringing the coronavirus into the country. But King was arrested quite normally and most recently presented in North Korea’s state media as a repentant US critic.

The lockdown was not bad for ruler Kim Jong-un

Last week, state airline Air Koryo flew to Vladivostok and Beijing for the first time in years. This week, North Korea’s authorities allowed compatriots back into the country who had not been able to visit their families for three and a half years due to the strict corona policy. And recently you can see North Koreans on international sports fields again.

North Korea, for example, seems to want to take part in qualifying for the 2026 World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico. In that, the country would meet Japan, among others, and that means that if North Korea’s national team is to retain its home field advantage, the regime must also allow foreigners from an enemy nation to cross the border.

What the development means for North Korea’s diplomatic relations is not yet clear. Can nations like Germany soon move into their embassy in Pyongyang again? Can the malnourished people in the country hope for international help again soon? Basically, the lockdown wasn’t bad for Kim Jong-un’s interests. She helped him to shut out Western influences. Because of the UN sanctions, Kim Jong-un cannot expect much positive things from the rest of the world anyway. And because of China’s unconditional support, he doesn’t feel any pressure to quickly open his country to expats.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert from Kookmin University in Seoul, therefore expects “many months, maybe even a year or more” before North Korea’s border policy really changes. “Foreigners shouldn’t pack in a hurry,” Lankov writes in the specialist portal NK News, and even if they were allowed to return, they would have to reckon with dramatic restrictions in everyday life.

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