North Korea says its athletes will not take part in the Tokyo Summer Olympics this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision was announced Tuesday on the state-operated website Sports in DPRK, using the acronym for the country’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The website said the decision was made after a meeting on March 25 of the North’s Olympic Committee, citing the need to “protect athletes from the global health crisis” caused by the coronavirus.
This is the first time North Korea will miss an Olympics since boycotting the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
The North’s absence is a further blow on South Korea’s hopes to salvage the diplomatic breakthrough between the bitter rivals achieved at the 2018 Winter Olympics, when a large delegation led by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, traveled across the border to attend the event hosted in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang. The newly-created detente eventually led to historic talks between Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
But those overtures have since faded over the continued stalemate between Pyongyang and Washington over the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
North Korea’s withdrawal from the Tokyo Games could also dampen plans for the two Koreas joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, issued a statement expressing regret over Pyongyang’s decision, which it said would have provided an opportunity to improve cross-border relations.