A group of Russian tourists is expected to enter the country in February. Image Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Seoul: North Korea is set to allow the first group of tourists to visit the country since it shut its borders at the start of the pandemic in 2020, in a sign of opening that could be followed by a soccer match against Japan's national women's team.

A group of Russian tourists is expected to enter the country in February for a trip that includes time in the capital Pyongyang and a ski resort, Koryo Tours, one of the major travel agencies for North Korea, said on its website.

Specialist service NK News said the tour starting on Feb. 9 is being arranged by the government of the Russian Far East region of Primorsky Krai and a Vladivostok-based travel agency, which said prices for the four-day trip start at $750.

"It may signal an opening in due course to other tourists, or may not. We wait and see!" Koryo Tours, which is not a part of the arrangement, said on its website Thursday.

Soon after the planned arrival of the tourists, Japan's women's team is due to play a qualifying match for the Paris Olympics in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium on Feb. 24. If the game goes ahead, it would be the biggest international sporting event in North Korea since the pandemic, but there is a chance the match against a country Pyongyang regards as an arch enemy may be moved to a neutral site for political reasons.

In September, North Korea announced foreigners would be allowed to enter the country, according to a report by China's state broadcaster CCTV. There was no immediate report in North Korea's state media about the move and no indications that any foreigners other than those representing a handful of official delegations from abroad have entered since then.

Kim Jong Un's government has slowly been easing up on its border curbs by allowing high-level delegations from China and Russia to visit in July of last year and then sending commercial aircraft in August to Beijing and Vladivostok to return diplomats, students and workers who had been stranded abroad due to border restrictions.