SEOUL -- North Korea said Tuesday that it will boycott the Tokyo Olympics to "protect" its athletes from the coronavirus pandemic, crushing hopes that the event could be used to spur denuclearization talks with the isolated nation.
North Korea's Sports Ministry announced that its National Olympic Committee decided not to join the Games in a meeting on March 25. The isolated nation is the first country to officially pull out of the Tokyo event.
"The National Olympic Committee of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea discussed and decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympic Games to protect athletes from the global health crisis by the vicious virus pandemic," the sports ministry said in a statement.
The Tokyo Games were postponed last year because of the pandemic -- a delay hastened when Canada and Australia simultaneously announced they would withdraw. While North Korea's decision is not likely to have any impact on the holding of the Olympics, eyes will be on the U.S. introducing its team at a three-day media summit starting Wednesday.
Tokyo 2020 organizers remained bullish, saying in a statement: "We understand that it is the IOC, which invites each NOC to the Olympic Games. As the Organising Committee, working closely with all relevant parties, we will continue to prepare the best possible stage to welcome athletes from all countries and regions, in accordance with the Host City Contract."
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Japan was closely watching the country. "We are making efforts to improve the environment, including measures to stop the spread [of COVID-19] so many countries will be able to attend."
Sports Minister Kim Il Guk said at the March 25 meeting that the country would forge ahead with socialism and seek to increase its tally of medals at international events. But with the withdrawal announcement coming less than two weeks after that speech, it arouses suspicions that the COVID-19 situation has not improved in the country.
North Korea officially maintains it has had no COVID-19 cases. But fragile medical and health systems led Kim Jong Un to seek to stop the spread of the virus through strict measures such as closing the border with China from January 2020 and restricting the flow of goods into the country. Shortages of imported medicines and foods forced foreign envoys stationed in Pyongyang to leave the country, and North Korea may not have been in a position to send athletes overseas.
Despite the harsh economic climate at home, North Korea has sought to boost national prestige by winning Olympic medals. The country send about 30 athletes in nine sports to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, winning golds in weightlifting and gymnastics.
This will be the first time North Korea hasn't attended an Olympics since Seoul in 1988, when it skipped the event in protest at it being awarded to South Korea.
The announcement comes a few days after the U.S., Japan and South Korea officials met in the U.S., and vowed to cooperate closely to counter Pyongyang's provocations. The Biden administration is set to announce soon its new North Korean policy, which analysts expect to be more hawkish than that of the previous Trump government.
South Korean officials had hoped the Tokyo Olympics might be a venue to discuss various issues with officials from Pyongyang. North Korea sent athletes to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, and formed a pan-Korean women's ice hockey team with the South.
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean Kim Jong Un, used the occasion to become the first member of the Kim dynasty to cross the border into South Korea. Inter-Korean dialogue followed those games, and Kim Jong Un went on to hold summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and previous U.S. President Donald Trump.
The announcement on Tuesday comes just days after Seoul sent a proposal for co-hosting the 2032 Summer Olympics with Pyongyang to the International Olympic Committee. The bid came despite the IOC having picked Brisbane as its front-runner.
"We had hoped for the opportunity advance peace on the Korean Peninsula and reconciliation between the South and North" through North Korea's participation in the Games, South Korean Unification Ministry official said on Tuesday. "It's shame this couldn't happen because of the COVID situation."
Polls show South Korean President Moon Jae-in's left leaning Democratic Party as likely to lose mayoral elections on Wednesday in the country's two biggest cities of Seoul and Busan. The achievement of long-term peace on the Korean Peninsula has been a linchpin policy of Moon's since taking office in 2017.
Additional reporting by Yosuke Onchi and Francesca Regalado