North Korea will not join the Tokyo Olympics this year due to coronavirus problems, the country’s sports ministry said on Tuesday, and deleted South Korean hopes that the Games could be a catalyst for reviving blocked peace talks.
It will be the first time North Korea has missed a summer Olympics since boycotting Seoul in 1988 in the midst of the Cold War.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in had hoped that the two countries, still technically at war after the conflict between 1950 and 53 ended in a ceasefire, not a peace agreement, could put a combined team in Tokyo and rebuild momentum for improved relations.
The Nordic withdrawal from Tokyo is also a setback for plans, which were agreed at a 2018 summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to pursue a joint Korean effort to host the 2032 Games.
When South Korea hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Kim sent her sister to head the country’s delegation, athletes from both sides marched under a unified flag at the opening ceremony and fielded a combined women’s ice hockey team.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula increased last month as the North resumed missile tests, although both sides after the launches said they wanted to continue the dialogue.
South Korea’s unitary ministry responsible for inter-Korean affairs said Seoul had hoped the Tokyo Olympics would be a chance to “promote peace and reconciliation between the two Koreans”.
“We regret that this could not happen,” it added in a statement.
Tokyo Olympic organizers said they were aware of news reports on North Korea’s moves and would work with other countries for the success of the Games.
“We will continue to prepare for the best possible stage to welcome athletes from all countries and regions,” the organizing committee said in a statement.
The Nordic countries decided to withdraw from Tokyo at a meeting with their Olympic Committee and Sports Minister Kim Il Guk on March 25, the ministry said on its website.
“The committee decided not to join the 32nd Olympic Games to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus,” it said.
North Korea says it has not had any cases of coronavirus.
Kim, known for being a fan of American basketball, has publicly shown his ambitions to promote professional sports.
The March 25 meeting also discussed ways to develop professional sports technology, earn more medals at international competitions and expand public sports activities over the next five years, the ministry said.