North Korea says it will not participate in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
The country’s sports ministry said the decision was made “in order to protect players from the world public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” in a statement dated Monday.
If North Korea follows through with the decision, it would be the first time it has skipped an Olympics since 1988, when the games were in Seoul. It is the first country to pull out of this year’s Tokyo games.
The Tokyo games have been delayed a year due to the coronavirus but are set to begin July 23 with strict virus-prevention measures in place.
North Korea, which is particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, has imposed perhaps the world’s most stringent coronavirus prevention measures.
For more than a year, the country has attempted to almost completely seal its borders and has implemented even stricter than usual domestic travel restrictions.
North Korea insists its border restrictions have succeeded in keeping the virus out of the country — a claim largely dismissed by experts.
Some Korea watchers express concern Pyongyang will use the pandemic to extend its draconian restrictions indefinitely to impose greater control on the population.
North Korea has one of the world’s poorest countries, observers say, and does not have adequate health infrastructure. The coronavirus lockdown made things worse, with reports emerging of food and medicine shortages.
Impact on diplomacy
The North’s decision to skip the Tokyo Olympics suggests the lockdown will not end anytime soon. But experts say Pyongyang could reverse its decision.
“This seems as much a political decision designed to snub/pressure Tokyo & Seoul as much as it is a public health concern,” tweeted Jean Lee, Director of the Korea Program at The Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
South Korea had proposed using the summer games as a catalyst for renewed sports diplomacy between the two Koreas.
Such a strategy has worked in the past. In 2018, Seoul successfully converted inter-Korean sports cooperation at the Winter Olympics into a series of North-South meetings, which eventually led to talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Those talks have now been stalled for more than a year. North Korea said last month it considers any talks a “waste of time” unless the United States changes its approach.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, leader of the country’s Democratic Party, has less than a year in office and is willing to resume talks with North Korea.
Some in South Korea are pushing for South and North Korea to jointly host the 2032 Olympic games, though it is far from clear whether Pyongyang would accept.