North Korea Says It’ll Skip Tokyo Olympics Due to Covid-19

North Korea has decided not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus, a state-run sports website reported, a move that could make it the first country to skip the games because of the pandemic.

The decision to miss the event scheduled to start in July was made March 25 by the country’s Olympics committee, which cited the need to protect its athletes amid the global health crisis, Sports in the DPR Korea, a website run by North Korea’s sports ministry, said Tuesday.

The upcoming Olympics in long-time adversary Japan offered an opportunity for Kim Jong Un’s isolated regime to engage with the outside world. But Kim has imposed strict measures to prevent the coronavirus from entering the nation, making it among the first in the world to close borders even though the move halted what little was left of the heavily sanctioned country’s legal trade.

“Quarantine remains a top priority for North Korea, and given that the Covid situation remains serious globally, Pyongyang clearly decided that it cannot risk sending a delegation to Japan,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent political analyst who used to work for the U.S. government in areas related to North Korea.

“If this had been targeted at Japan, North Korea’s announcement would have come in a higher-level statement, not a report on the Sports Ministry website,” she added.

Tokyo Olympic organizers have not received a notice from North Korea and said so far there have been no notifications from any national organizing committee of a withdrawal from the games due to virus concerns. The International Olympic Committee said it hasn’t received any official application from North Korea’s Olympic Committee to cancel its participation in the games.

North Korea says it has no cases of the coronavirus -- a claim doubted by U.S. and Japanese officials -- but has still taken drastic quarantine steps that have worsened the regime’s economic woes. Covid-19 brings a large risk to the impoverished state, whose antiquated medical systems could be easily overwhelmed by an infection wave.

The Japanese government has billed the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed by a year due to the pandemic, as proof that the human race has defeated the virus.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Japan is closely monitoring reports that North Korea will stay away from the games because of the pandemic. He also said the cabinet decided to extend by two years unilateral sanctions Japan imposed on North Korea.

North Korea, which won seven medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016, has been keenly aware of the politics of its participation in the international sports spectacle. It joined the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 games in Los Angeles and skipped the 1988 Summer Olympics in rival South Korea.

North Korea sent Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s sister, to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 as part of a detente. The move eventually led to a series of high-level meetings for Kim Jong Un that culminated with a summit with Donald Trump several months later in Singapore -- the first meeting between a North Korean leader and sitting U.S. president.

The government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in was pinning hopes on the Tokyo Olympics to help restart sputtering nuclear arms talks with the Biden administration.

Pyongyang has also viewed Japan as its enemy for decades, threatening to “sink” its neighbor and adding hundreds of missiles to its arsenal that could hit Japan and U.S. bases where tens of thousands of American military personnel are stationed.

Still, there was little indication that North Korea would skip the games. IOC President Thomas Bach visited Kim in Pyongyang in 2018 and received assurances from the North Korean leader that his athletes would go to Tokyo.

At a video meeting of the North Korean Olympic Committee on March 25, members called for “winning more medals in international games during the period of the new five-year plan to add glory to our dignified nation,” the state’s official Korean Central News Agency reported, without mentioning the Tokyo Olympics and whether North Korea would attend.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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