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Russians enter North Korea as first post-COVID tourists

February 9, 2024

Scores of Russians have flown to North Korea for a private tour — the first foreign tour group to visit the reclusive state since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of Russian tourists pose for a picture at Pyongyang International Airport, North Korea
The group's arrival comes as Moscow and Pyongyang bolster tiesImage: Russian Embassy in the DPRK via Facebook/REUTERS

Almost 100 Russian tourists arrived at Pyongyang International Airport in North Korea on Friday to enjoy a private skiing and sightseeing tour.

The visitors are the first tourists to be allowed into North Korea since it closed its doors during the coronavirus pandemic.

What we know about the tour

Russia's state-owned TASS news agency said 97 Russians had left Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok for North Korea on a group tour. The group was said to include teenage ski athletes.

A North Korean-operated Air Koryo flight carried the visitors to Pyongyang, the Russian Embassy in North Korea said in a Facebook post on Friday.

The embassy said the group included people in the tourism business and "travelers from literally all parts of Russia from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok." 

The visitors were expected to make a first stop in Pyongyang before traveling to the Masikryong Ski Resort near the city of Wonsan, on the country's east coast.

North Korea's official tourist website recently uploaded promotional videos showcasing various attractions they might see, including the scenic Taedong River and the snow-decked Mount Paektu.

The group's arrival comes as Moscow and Pyongyang pledge to bolster economic and military cooperation.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un made a rare foreign trip to the Russian Far East last September to meet President Vladimir Putin. North Korean state media last month said Putin had also expressed his willingness to visit Pyongyang.

What took North Korea so long to reopen?

The North Korean government was said to have been slow to end COVID-19 measures because it preferred not to relinquish the extra control the restrictions gave over the population. 

In January 2020, North Korea became the first country in the world to completely seal its borders to the outside world, claiming it was acting to halt the spread of the virus.

Concerns grow that North Korea is sending weapons to Russia

North Korea confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in May 2022 after maintaining a widely disputed claim to be coronavirus-free for more than two years.

The country has one of the world's most under-resourced health systems and at the time had no vaccine program, mass testing capacity or antiviral treatment drugs.

The self-imposed lockdown measures throttled trade and triggered concerns about food shortages.

North Korea begins international reopening in August 2023  

The North reopened its border last August, after nearly four years of pandemic-linked border closures. Until then, even North Korea's own nationals had been prevented from entering.

In August of the same year, Pyongyang also announced the creation of "buffer zones" in the border regions, with soldiers under orders to "unconditionally shoot" anyone found within the zones without permission. 

In addition, flights restarted between Pyongyang and Beijing and the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok in August 2023, to allow North Korean citizens sent abroad to return home. They were still subject to a weeklong quarantine.

When international travelers were first allowed back into North Korea in September last year, they were still subject to a two-day quarantine.

rc/wd (AFP, Reuters)