North Korea will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics this year due to coronavirus fears, the country’s sports ministry said on Monday.
It is the first country to make the decision not to participate in the Games, which are due to start on July 23. The decision was taken at a meeting of the country’s Olympic committee on March 25 to “protect athletes from the global health crisis created by Covid. 19,” the statement posted on the sports ministry website.
North Korea has not reported any internal Covid-19 numbers and very little is known about the pandemic in the secret and closed country. However, leader Kim Jong Un issued an unusual and tearful apology to the North Korean people in October for failing during the crisis.
This year’s Tokyo Games were originally scheduled to take place in 2020, but have been postponed due to the pandemic. The organizers have banned international spectators. Still, the increasing number of cases in Japan and the sluggishness of the vaccination program have raised the question of whether the Games should take place.
It had been hoped that the Olympics would be an opportunity for North Korea and South Korea, who are technically still at war with each other, to face each other again under the same flag as at the Games. Winter 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Tuesday it had “hoped that the Tokyo Olympics could be an opportunity to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, but we find it a pity that we cannot due to the situation of Covid-19. “
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Cases of Covid-19 in Japan are steadily increasing, with between 1,000 and 2,000 cases per day in March.
About 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands of coaches are expected to attend the Games, along with other officials and broadcasters. NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News, owns the US media rights to the upcoming Olympic Games.
Ties between the North and the South, and between North Korea and the United States, have been strained since a February 2019 summit between President Donald Trump and Kim collapsed over disputes over sanctions. Kim has since threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal to protest what he called American hostility.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month criticized the North for “systematic and widespread abuses against its own people”. He also said Washington contacted North Korea through multiple channels starting in mid-February, but received no response.
In late March, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, describing them early Friday as a new type of guided tactical weapon.
Stella Kim contributed.