Taekwondo Athletes Appear to be North Korea’s First Delegation to Travel Since Border Closed in 2020

North Korean taekwondo athletes and officials were traveling through Beijing on Friday morning, apparently the country’s first delegation to travel abroad since the nation closed its borders in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group of around 80 men and women wearing white track suits with “Taekwondo-Do” printed on the back and the North Korean flag on the front were in the departure hall of Beijing’s international airport checking in and walking to customs. They reportedly arrived Wednesday or Thursday.

The group was expected to take an Air Astana flight to Kazakhstan to compete at 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 extremely limited air connections at the best of times and travel all but ended when Pyongyang closed the national borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. How badly North Koreans were affected by the illness is unknown, since most of the country’s 26 million people have no access to vaccines, lack basic health care and are restricted 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 2020-22 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 since 2017 on North Korean human rights 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.

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