North Korea has sent athletes to a taekwondo competition in Kazakhstan, a photo from organisers showed Saturday, the first time in years that Pyongyang has allowed a delegation to travel overseas.
The country has been under a rigid self-imposed Covid-19 blockade since early 2020, but there are increasing signs Pyongyang may be becoming more flexible on border controls, experts say.
At least five North Korean athletes, wearing white uniforms with the country’s red and blue star flag on the front, were shown at the International Taekwondo Federation’s 2023 competition in Astana, according to a photograph shared on the event’s official Facebook page.
The Yonhap and Kyodo news agencies had earlier reported that a group of people believed to be North Korean athletes, had crossed the land border from the isolated country into China Wednesday, before travelling on to Beijing, and flying on to Kazakhstan.
An official at Seoul’s unification ministry told AFP on Friday that the reports of North Korea’s participation at the taekwondo event “are generally considered to be true” adding that it was monitoring the situation.
North Korea has not sent any of its domestic athletes to overseas competitions since before the pandemic.
Earlier this year, it registered to send its athletes to a weightlifting competition in Cuba, but in the end, none of their weightlifters attended.
Beijing confirmed in July that North Korea had registered for this year’s Asian Games, to be held in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September.
Last month, high-level Chinese and Russian delegations visited Pyongyang for a key anniversary celebration, hinting at new flexibility in the country’s border controls.
And earlier this month, North Korea’s official tourism agency invited foreign golfers to a tournament in Pyongyang -- without specifying any set date.
Experts say that North Korea may be looking to re-open its borders in the post-pandemic era.
“In this context, Kazakhstan, a former Soviet bloc member, is a good location for the North to dispatch athletes if it’s preparing to promote tourism program to Central Asian countries,” Choi Gi-il, professor of national security at Sangji University, told.
The International Taekwondo Federation did not respond to a request by AFP for comment.
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