SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said it will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A website run by the North’s sports ministry said the decision was made during a national Olympic Committee meeting on March 25 where members prioritized protecting athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by COVID-19.”
South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday expressed regret over the North’s decision, saying it had hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which have declined amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Japanese Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa told reporters she was still confirming details and couldn’t immediately comment on the matter. Japan’s Olympic Committee said North Korea has not yet notified it that it wouldn’t participate in the Tokyo Games.
North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, performance artists, journalists and a 230-member all-female cheering group.
At the Pyeongchang Games, the North and South Korean athletes jointly marched under a blue map symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, while the red-clad North Korean cheerleaders captivated global attention. The Koreas also fielded their first combined Olympic team in women’s ice hockey, which drew passionate support from crowds despite losing all five of its games with a combined score of 28-2.
Those games were also much about politics. The North Korean contingent included the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who conveyed his brother’s desire for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a move which helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the United States.
That diplomacy has stalemated since, and North Korea’s decision to sit out the Tokyo Olympics is a setback for hopes to revive it.
While North Korea has steadfastly claimed to be coronavirus-free, outsiders widely doubt whether the country has escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and a porous border it shares with China, its economic lifeline.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea has severely limited cross-border traffic, banned tourists, jetted out diplomats and mobilized health workers with quarantine tens of thousands of people who had shown symptoms.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga previously said he expected to invite President Joe Biden to the Olympics and was willing to meet with Kim Jong Un or his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, if either attended the Games. Suga, however, did not say if he will invite either of them.
Experts say pandemic border closures have further shocked North Korea’s economy, already broken by decades of mismanagement, aggressive military spending and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
The economic setbacks have left Kim Jong Un with nothing to show for his ambitious diplomacy with former President Donald Trump, which derailed over disagreements in exchanging the release of sanctions and the North’s nuclear disarmament steps.
Kim in recent political speeches has pledged to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of U.S.-led pressure, and his government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s overture for talks, demanding that Washington abandon its “hostile” policies first.
The North ended a yearlong pause in ballistic testing activity last month by firing two short-range missiles off its eastern coast, continuing a tradition of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at measuring Washington’s response and wresting concessions.
AP writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to the report.