North Korea says it will not attend Tokyo Olympics due to Covid fears
Seoul, South Korea: North Korea will not participate in this year's Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic fears, according to Pyongyang's sports ministry, effectively quashing Seoul's hopes of using the Games to resume negotiations with its hermit nuclear-armed neighbor.
The involvement of the isolated North in the most recent Winter Games, hosted by the South in Pyeongchang, was a crucial catalyst in the diplomatic rapprochement of 2018.
In a blaze of publicity, Leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong attended as his ambassador, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in took the opportunity to mediate talks between Pyongyang and Washington, leading to a series of high-profile meetings between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump.
However, Pyongyang's announcement curbs Seoul's hopes of using the postponed Tokyo Games, which were scheduled to begin in July, to restart the now-stalled talks phase.
North Korea's Olympic Committee "decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympic Games in order to protect players from the world public health crisis caused by Covid-19", said the Sports in the DPR Korea website, run by the sports ministry in Pyongyang. However, analysts believe that other influences may have been at work.
The announcement, which was made on Monday, listed a meeting of the national Olympic committee on March 25.
The official news agency of the North, KCNA, had previously carried a dispatch on the committee meeting, but it did not mention the Olympic decision.
Pyongyang is more isolated than ever since enforcing a strict border closure more than a year ago in an attempt to shield itself from the virus, which first appeared in neighboring China and then spread throughout the world.
Experts dispute the North's claim that there have been no coronavirus cases, but the lockdown has compounded the economic pain caused by various international sanctions related to its banned weapons programs.
The new US administration of Joe Biden is nearing the end of a study of North Korean strategy, with officials widely expected to release their findings.
US President Joe Biden referred to Kim as a "thug" during the campaign and has slammed Trump's meetings, claiming they legitimized one of the world's most ruthless leaders, but he has also stated that he is open to diplomacy.
After Pyongyang recently tested what US officials believe to be ballistic missiles, Biden warned North Korea of the repercussions of violating UN Security Council resolutions.
Inter-Korean relations have also come to a halt, with the North regularly stating that it has no desire to speak to Seoul and blowing up a liaison office on its side of the border last year.
"This year's Tokyo Olympics could be an opportunity for dialogues between South Korea and Japan, the North and the South, North Korea, and Japan, and North Korea and the US," Moon said in his Independence Day speech on March 1.
The day commemorates mass demonstrations against Tokyo's colonial rule across the Korean peninsula in 1919.
The unification ministry in Seoul expressed regret that "the Covid situation" had stopped the Games from serving as "an opportunity to advance peace on the Korean peninsula."
Japan's chief government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, said the country was monitoring the reports and that authorities were trying to improve the environment, including infection control measures, so that several countries and regions could participate in the Tokyo Olympics.
According to analysts, the virus may not be the only explanation for Pyongyang's decision.
"Pyongyang seems to be protesting against Japan's policies on North Korea, as sensitive issues such as human rights and sanctions have been raised by Tokyo, along with the US," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
The North regularly excoriates Olympic host nation Japan over its brutal 20th-century annexation, with KCNA carrying a report Sunday condemning new Japanese history textbooks as "persistent and shameless distortion of history".
Tokyo has repeatedly demanded that the issue of Japanese civilians abducted by the North be resolved, despite Pyongyang's claim that it has returned all those it has captured who are still alive.
With AFP inputs.