North Korea has announced it will not participate in an upcoming sports gala scheduled to take place in South Korea next month.
Pyongyang made its announcement in an email sent Monday to the International University Sports Federation, which relayed the message to the Gwangju Universiade Organizing Committee.
North Korea listed rising tensions between the two Koreas as the reason for withdrawing its participation.
The chairman of the North Korean University Sports Association, Jon Kuk Man, is quoted in the email as saying, “The present South Korean authorities pursue military confrontation against us despite the repeated warnings of our government and announced its confirmation of the [establishment] of [the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office] in Seoul."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office, slated to open Tuesday, is in charge of monitoring and documenting human rights in the communist country.
Yoon Jang-hyun, mayor of Gwangju and president of the organizing committee, expressed regret over the North’s decision, but held out hope that Pyongyang will change its mind.
Another South Korean official told the VOA Korean service the North’s change of heart could be fear of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has been spreading in the South since last month.
South Korea confirmed its first MERS patient May 20. More than 170 people have been infected so far, with 27 deaths from the deadly virus.
Pyongyang was scheduled to send 75 athletes and 33 officials to the multi-sport competition. When the communist country did not submit its final roster by the June 15 deadline, some suspected its withdrawal from the summer sports gala.
The Universiade is often considered as the Olympics for university athletes.
This year’s event will be held in South Korea’s sixth-largest city of Gwangju from July 2–14, with about 14,000 athletes from 150 countries participating.
North Korea took part in the 2003 Daegu games, the last Universiade held in South Korea.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.