North Korea won’t participate in the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year because of coronavirus fears, the country’s sports ministry said Monday.
It is the first country to make the decision to skip the Games, due to begin on July 23. The decision was made at a March 25 meeting of the country’s Olympic committee to “protect the athletes from the global health crisis created by the Covid-19,” the statement posted on the Sports Ministry’s website.
North Korea has not reported any internal Covid-19 numbers and very little is known about the pandemic within the secretive and closed country. However, leader Kim Jong Un delivered an unusual, tearful apology to the North Korean people in October for failing them during the crisis.
This year’s Tokyo Games were originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but were pushed back due to the pandemic. Organizers have have banned international spectators. Yet Japan’s rising caseload and slow vaccination program have raised questions about whether the Games should be held at all.
There had been hopes that the Olympics would be an opportunity for North and South Korea, who are technically still at war with each other, to once again compete under the same flag as they did during the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Tuesday it had been “hoping that the Tokyo Olympics could serve as an opportunity to promote the peace on the Korean peninsula as well as inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, but we find it a shame that we cannot because of the Covid-19 situation.”
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Covid-19 cases in Japan have been steadily rising, with between 1,000 and 2,000 cases a day throughout March.
Around 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, holds the U.S. media rights to the upcoming Olympics.
Ties between the North and South, and between North Korea and the U.S., have been strained since a February 2019 summit between President Donald Trump and Kim collapsed over disputes surrounding sanctions. Kim has since threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal in protest of what he called U.S. hostility.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month slammed the North for “systematic and widespread abuses against its own people.” He also said that Washington has reached out to North Korea through several channels starting in mid-February, but it hadn’t received any response.
At the end of March North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, describing them early Friday as a new type of tactical guided weapon.
Stella Kim contributed.