North Korea says it will skip Tokyo Olympics

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SEOUL, April 5 (UPI) — North Korea will not take part in this year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics due to COVID-19 concerns, a state-run media outlet reported on Tuesday.

At a meeting of North Korea’s Olympic Committee on March 25, authorities “discussed the suggestions of its members and decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympic Games in order to protect players from the world public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” website Sports in the DPR Korea reported.

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The decision comes as a blow to South Korea’s hopes to kickstart diplomatic efforts with the North, which have been on ice since June, when Pyongyang cut off all communications and demolished a joint liaison office in the border city of Kaesong.

In a speech last month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the Tokyo Olympics, set to begin on July 23, an “opportunity for dialogue” among the two Koreas, Japan and the United States.

South Korea’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, held in 2018, were a high point of inter-Korean sports cooperation, with the neighboring countries marching in the opening ceremony together under a unified peninsula flag and fielding a joint women’s hockey team for the first time.

The countries later sent joint women’s basketball and rowing teams to the 2018 Asian Games held in Indonesia.

The Pyeongchang Olympics led to a period of renewed diplomacy by Pyongyang, with a trio of inter-Korean summits held in 2018 and two high-profile summits between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

At their Pyongyang summit in September 2018, Moon and Kim agreed to pursue a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics, a dream that seems all but over as the International Olympic Committee earlier this year announced Brisbane, Australia, as its preferred host.

North Korea says that it has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, a claim that many outside observers question. However, the country has taken extreme measures to prevent an outbreak, including sealing its borders in January last year and imposing severe restrictions on daily life that have led to many foreign diplomats and aid workers leaving the country.

In September, North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean fisheries official who had floated into the North’s waters, citing COVID-19 emergency orders.

The decision not to take part in the Tokyo Olympics marks the first time North Korea will be absent from the Games since 1988, when it boycotted the Seoul Summer Olympics.