It's barely been a day since President Donald Trump revealed that the US would once again label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and impose broad new sanctions against its government and senior officials, and already more bad news for the restive communist state has emerged. This time, the Associated Press is reporting that Air China, a state owned airline, is canceling flights to North Korea, leaving the North's troubled Air Koryo as the only airline operating flights between North Korea and its primary economic benefactor.
Flights were “temporarily suspended due to unsatisfactory business operations,” said an employee of Air China’s press office who would give only his surname, Zhang, according to the AP. The suspension was blamed on falling demand for the routes. A foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said he hadn’t heard about Air China’s cancellation. He said such decisions would be made based on the “state of operation and the market.”
Beijing has supported UN sanctions on North Korean exports meant to pressure the government of leader Kim Jong Un to drop its pursuit of nuclear and missile technology, but China has argued against measures that would harm ordinary North Koreans.
Since mid-summer, the UN Security Council has passed two rounds of sanctions (with China's approval) that impose strict limitations on exports of North Korean seafood, coal and other raw materials. And Trump said the Treasury will outline more restrictions to be imposed against the North and senior government officials in the coming weeks. Since Air China is state-owned, the cancellation of the routes received at least tacit government approval. But since the sanctions have choked off much of the North's legitimate economy, it's possible the routes were eliminated to prevent the airline from losing money, forcing the government to intervene with subsidies. Back in September, China kicked out North Korean businessmen and instructed its banks not to do business with North Koreans or North Korean-owned businesses.
To be sure, Airlines have been rolling back flights to North Korea for months.
Airlines have steadily reduced the frequency of flights to North Korea as mounting political tensions depressed the already small number of business travelers and tourists visiting the North.
Air China Ltd. announced in April it was cutting the frequency of flights to North Korea due to lack of demand. Some other Chinese carriers offered charter services to the North but those also have been canceled.
Zhang said the last Air China flight to Pyongyang was Monday and he didn’t know when service might resume.
The status of Air Koryo’s flights was unclear. Phone calls to the carrier’s Beijing office weren’t answered. The flight information website for the Beijing airport showed its Pyongyang flight on Tuesday took off as scheduled.
Lu, the foreign ministry spokesman, appealed for measures to ease the tense standoff.
“Given the highly complex and sensitive situation on the peninsula, we hope all relevant parties can do something conducive to alleviating the tension and pulling all sides concerned back to the track of negotiation and dialogue to settle the peninsular nuclear issue,” he said at a regular news briefing.
Whether it's true or not, Trump has shown himself more than willing to take credit for any signs of a chill in relations between the North and China. For example, he boasted about having secured assurances from President Xi that China would continue to help isolated the North's economy. Though many have speculated that Xi is just flattering his American rival, and that China has no intention of squeezing the North.