SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea has become the first country to drop out of the Tokyo Olympics over coronavirus fears, a move that highlights the challenges Japan faces as it struggles to organize a global sporting event in the midst of a raging pandemic.
A website operated by the North Korean Sports Ministry said its National Olympic Committee at a meeting on March 25 decided not to participate in the Games to protect athletes from the “global public health crisis caused by COVID-19 ”.
The pandemic has already postponed the Tokyo Games, initially scheduled for 2020, and organizers have scrambled to put in place preventive measures, such as banning international spectators, to ensure the safety of athletes and residents.
However, there are still fears that the Olympics will worsen the spread of the virus and the growing number of cases in Japan and the slow rollout of vaccines have raised public questions about whether the Games should take place.
The Japanese Olympic Committee said on Tuesday that North Korea had yet to notify it that it would not compete in the Tokyo Games.
Katsunobu Kato, chief secretary of the Japanese cabinet, said the government hopes many countries will join the Olympics and he has promised many anti-virus measures.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry regretted the North’s move, saying it had hoped the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which deteriorated into a stalemate in negotiations. nuclear power stations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Choi Young-sam, spokesperson for South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said the government supports Japan’s efforts to advance the Olympics while taking security measures. Choi said there was still time for the North to reverse its decision and participate in the event.
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.
At the Pyeongchang Games, North Korean and South Korean athletes jointly paraded under a blue card symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, while North Korean cheerleaders clad in red captured the world’s attention. The Koreas also fielded their first combined Olympic women’s ice hockey team, which drew passionate support from the crowd despite losing all five of its games by a combined score of 28-2.
These games were also very much about politics. The North Korean contingent included the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who expressed her brother’s desire for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, an initiative that helped the North begin. talks with South Korea and the United States.
Diplomatic efforts have since stalled, and North Korea’s decision not to compete in the Tokyo Olympics is a setback for any hope of reviving it.
While North Korea has always claimed to be coronavirus-free, foreigners have expressed doubts the country has completely escaped the pandemic, 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 restricted cross-border traffic, banned tourists, expelled diplomats and mobilized health workers to quarantine tens of thousands of people who had exhibited symptoms.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had previously said he plans to invite US President Joe Biden to the Olympics and is willing to meet Kim Jong Un or his sister if either of them attends the Games. Suga, however, did not say if he would invite one or the other.
Experts say pandemic border closures have further shocked the North Korean economy, already shattered by decades of mismanagement, aggressive military spending and crippling US-led sanctions on its nuclear weapons program .
The economic setbacks have left Kim with nothing to show for his ambitious diplomacy with former President Donald Trump, which has derailed over disagreements in the exchange of sanctions release and northern nuclear disarmament measures.
Kim, in recent political speeches, has pledged to strengthen his nuclear deterrence in the face of pressure from the United States, and his government has so far rejected the opening of talks by the Biden administration, demanding that Washington first abandons its “hostile” policies.
The North ended a year-long hiatus in ballistic testing activities last month by firing two short-range missiles off its east coast, continuing the tradition of testing new U.S. administrations with demonstrations of weapons aimed at measuring Washington’s response and wresting concessions.
A HuffPost guide to the coronavirus
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up to become a Founding Member and help shape the next chapter of HuffPost