Experts say sanctions relief would get North Korea’s attention to return to talks as the country faces economic decline.
North Korea has announced it will not attend the Tokyo Olympic Games because of coronavirus concerns, dashing South Korean hopes the Games could serve as a catalyst to revive stalled peace talks.
In a statement on Monday, a website run by North Korea’s sports ministry said the country’s Olympic Committee decided not to participate in this year’s Games “in order to protect players from the world public health crisis caused by COVID-19”.
The decision makes it the first time North Korea has missed a Summer Olympics since it boycotted Seoul in 1988 amid the Cold War.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in had hoped the two countries, still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, could field a combined team in Tokyo and rebuild momentum for improved relations.
The North’s withdrawal from Tokyo is also a setback for plans, agreed at a 2018 summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to pursue a joint Korean bid to host the 2032 Games.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs said on Tuesday that Seoul had hoped the Tokyo Olympics would be a chance to “foster peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas”.
“We regret it could not happen,” it added in a statement.
When South Korea hosted the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, North Korea sent 22 athletes along with government officials, performance artists, journalists and a 230-member all-female cheering group.
At the Winter Games, the North and South Korean athletes jointly marched under a blue map symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, and the two countries fielded their first combined Olympic team in women’s ice hockey, which drew passionate support from crowds despite losing all five of its games with a combined score of 28-2.
Those games were also much about politics. The North Korean contingent included the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who conveyed his brother’s desire for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a move which helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the United States.
That diplomacy has stalemated since, and tensions on the Korean Peninsula rose last month when the North resumed missile tests, although both sides said after the launches that they wanted to continue dialogue.
Japanese Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa told reporters on Tuesday she was still confirming details and couldn’t immediately comment on the matter. Japan’s Olympic Committee said North Korea has not yet notified it that it wouldn’t participate in the Tokyo Games.
North Korea also has hostile relations with Japan and the two countries do not have any formal diplomatic relations, although talks have been held in the past.
Tokyo has also accused Pyongyang of abducting several of its citizens and Japan has raised concerns in recent years about North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles, one of which crossed over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea had previously boycotted the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, although it sent a delegation in both the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo and the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.
The North made its decision to pull out of Tokyo at a meeting of its Olympic committee and Sports Minister Kim Il Guk on March 25, the ministry said on its website.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency had previously reported the committee meeting, without mentioning the Olympic decision.
The March 25 meeting also discussed ways to develop professional sports technologies, earn more medals at international competitions and expand public sports activities over the next five years, the ministry said.
The NK News website reported that domestic sporting events in the country will continue, including reported national sports competitions starting on Monday in Pyongyang to mark the “Day of the Sun” – the birth date of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, on April 15.
Pyongyang claims it has no coronavirus cases, although experts doubt the assertion. The North describes its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence” and has severely limited cross-border traffic, banned tourists, jetted out diplomats and quarantined tens of thousands of people who had shown symptoms.