North Korea’s sports ministry said on Tuesday that it will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics this year to protect its athletes amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision was made at a meeting of North Korea’s Olympic committee, including its sports minister Kim Il guk, on 25 March the ministry said on its website, called Joson Sports.
“The committee decided not to join the 32nd Olympics Games to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus,” it said.
The meeting also discussed ways to develop professional sports technologies, earn medals at international competitions and promote public sports activities over the next five years, the ministry said.
North Korea has one of the world’s strictest quarantine regimes, despite the government’s denial that any cases have been detected in the country.
The measures have allowed the government to increase its control over daily life to levels similar to the famine years of the 1990s, according to analysts.
Tokyo Olympic torch relay begins as sign of hope in Japan amid Covid curbs
Outsiders 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 quarantined tens of thousands of people who have shown symptoms.
Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has previously said he expected to invite US president Joe Biden to the Olympics and was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or his powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, if either attended the Games. Suga, however, did not say if he would invite either of them.
South Korea‘s Unification Ministry on Tuesday expressed regret at the North’s decision, saying it had hoped the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which have declined amid a stalemate in wider nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Japan’s Olympic minister, Tamayo Marukawa, said she was still confirming details and couldn’t immediately comment on the pullout decision.
North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, performance artists, journalists and a 230-member cheering group.
The contingent included Kim Yo-jong, a move that helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the US. That diplomacy has stalled since and North Korea‘s decision to sit out the Tokyo Olympics is a setback for hopes to revive it.