North Korea said on Tuesday that it had decided not to participate in the 32nd Tokyo Summer Olympics because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The decision was made when the North’s national Olympic Committee met on March 25 in Pyongyang, where it decided a delegation would skip the Tokyo Olympics, to be held on July 23 to Aug. 8, “in order to protect our athletes from the global health crisis caused by the malicious virus infection,” the Sports in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a government-run website, said.
North Korea, which has a decrepit public health system, has taken stringent measures against the virus since early last year, including shutting its borders. The country officially maintains that it has no Covid-19 cases, but outside health experts remain skeptical.
North Korea’s decision deprives South Korea and other nations of a rare opportunity to establish official contact with the isolated country. Officials in the South had hoped that the Olympics might provide a venue for senior delegates from both Koreas to meet to discuss issues beyond sports.
The 2018 Winter Olympics, held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, provided such an opportunity. Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, grabbed global attention when she became the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into South Korea to attend the opening ceremony.
Mr. Kim used the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics as the signal to start diplomacy after a series of nuclear and long-range missile tests. Soon, inter-Korean dialogue followed, leading to three summit meetings between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Mr. Kim also met with President Donald J. Trump three times.
But since the collapse of Mr. Kim’s diplomacy with Mr. Trump in 2019, North Korea has shunned official contact with South Korea or the United States. The pandemic has deepened its diplomatic isolation and economic difficulties amid concerns over its nuclear ambitions. North Korea launched two ballistic missiles on March 25 in its first such test in a year, in a challenge to President Biden.
The Tokyo Games, which begin in July, were originally scheduled for 2020 but were delayed by a year because of the pandemic. The Tokyo organizing committee has been scrambling to develop safety protocols to protect both participants and local residents from the virus. Concern has been running high in Japan, with big majorities saying in polls that the Games should not be held this summer.
A series of health, economic and political challenges have besieged the Games. Even as the organizers decided last month to bar international spectators, epidemiologists warn that the Olympics could become a superspreader event. Thousands of athletes and other participants will descend on Tokyo from more than 200 countries while much of the Japanese public remains unvaccinated.