Air China launches flights to North Korea

BEIJING, March 31 (Reuters) - Air China on Monday launched flights to North Korea, making it the world’s only foreign airline to fly regularly to the country’s capital, Xinhua news agency reported.

The Beijing-Pyongyang air link comes as tensions have flared between North and South Korea.

North Korea has threatened to attack the South in recent days and sent jet fighters to test its neighbour’s air defences as it tries to push a new government in Seoul to back off from an increasingly hard line in their bilateral relations.

Analysts have said that China, one of North Korea’s biggest benefactors and the closest the destitute state has to a major ally, would lean on the hermit state to prevent the situation on the Korean peninsula spinning out of control.

The Beijing-Pyongyang flight route was postponed by three months after Air China said preparatory work took longer than expected.

Air China will fly the return trip three times per week, making Pyongyang a Star Alliance destination, the airline grouping led by Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and United Airlines.

Air China said previously that it saw the financial potential in the route, primarily from the Chinese tourist business.

North Korea’s air links have been almost entirely provided by the Russian-built aircraft of state carrier Air Koryo.

Previously, China Southern Airlines had flown to Pyongyang. It stopped flights in 2006 soon after North Korea carried out a nuclear test, though it was not clear if Beijing ordered the airline to drop the route. (Reporting by Simon Rabinovitch; Editing by David Fogarty)