Why is North Korea skipping the Tokyo Olympics?

SEOUL – North Korea became the first country in the world to cancel the Olympic Games in Tokyo, citing the corona virus.

It is true that the North is extremely sensitive to COVID-19, knowing that a widespread outbreak could be a disaster in a country with an already ailing health system.

But North Korea has also previously used major sporting events to forge diplomacy with the United States in order to receive much-needed sanctions relief in exchange for pledges of nuclear disarmament. Some see the Olympic Games withdrawal as the North sending Washington a message.

Here’s a look at the North Korean decision and what it could mean.

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LEGITIMATED VIRUS FEARS

A state website said Tuesday that the North Korean Olympic Committee decided not to participate in the Tokyo Games, due to begin in July, “to protect players from the public health crisis caused by COVID-19.”

North Korea has previously boycotted the Olympics and other international sporting events for political reasons or failed to show up when none of its athletes or teams qualified. However, according to the Seoul Unification Ministry, this is the first time North Korea has been eliminated from a major international sporting event that mentions an infectious disease.

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Pyongyang has built a reputation for pulling out of talks with Seoul and Washington before returning at the last minute to strengthen its bargaining power. Given the country has been on high alert over COVID-19, there is little chance it will reverse its decision on the Olympics, according to experts.

North Korea has “shown a coronavirus-related neurosis since declaring an emergency antivirus system last January,” said Park Won Gon, professor of North Korea Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Park said North Korea is highly unlikely to secure enough vaccines for its 26 million people or report major advances in fighting viruses by July.

North Korean officials know how catastrophic a major virus outbreak would be in a nation with a public health infrastructure that has been in tatters for decades. North Korea has taken some of the world’s most draconian antivirus moves to date, including closing its international borders for 15 months and allowing foreigners to leave.

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North Korea still officially claims to be coronavirus free, a claim that many foreign experts deny.

North Korea’s decision to skip the Olympics shows that “contact with foreigners is currently the most dangerous thing,” said Seo Yu-Seok of the Seoul-based Institute for North Korean Studies.

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A MESSAGE FOR WASHINGTON

North Korea’s announcement three months before the Games begin could signal that Pyongyang is opposed to a repeated move by Seoul to use the Olympics to create a mood for dialogue. It could also show a determination to step up pressure on President Joe Biden’s new administration.

North Korea is sending the message that it now wants to deal directly with the US instead of using the Olympics as a venue for talks with Washington, said Kwak Gil Sup, director of the One Korea Center, a website specializing in North Korea affairs.

The now stalled nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington began in 2018 after a reconciliation on the Korean peninsula after North Korea took part in the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the south earlier this year.

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During the Olympic Games, athletes from Korea marched together under a single flag during the opening ceremony, forming Korea’s first joint team in women’s ice hockey. Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was the first member of the northern ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1950/53.

Little progress has been made on the nuclear talks in the past two years. North Korea recently launched two ballistic missiles into the sea in the first such weapons tests in a year. Kim Yo Jong has warned Washington against “causing a stink” and called the South Korean president “a parrot raised by America”.

Experts say North Korea will eventually seek talks with the Biden government to gain sanctions relief and better relationships, as its economy was devastated by the pandemic, US-led sanctions, and natural disasters last year.

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Analyst Seo said North Korea is likely unsure of the benefits of attending the Tokyo Games, as Biden has made it clear that he will not attend television summits with Kim Jong Un like his predecessor Donald Trump.

“They knew they would return home from Tokyo empty-handed,” Seo said.

But North Korea’s internal troubles could lead it to have talks with the United States soon.

Seo said North Korea could conduct major weapons tests like an ICBM launch in the coming months if it is not satisfied with the review of North Korea’s policies by the Biden administration, which is expected to be completed soon.

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