SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea became the first country to drop out of the Tokyo Olympics because of coronavirus fears, a decision that underscores the challenges facing Japan as it struggles to stage a global sporting event amid a raging pandemic.
A website run by North Korea's Sports Ministry said its national Olympic Committee during a meeting on March 25 decided not to participate in the Games to protect athletes from the "world public health crisis caused by COVID-19."
The pandemic has already pushed back the Tokyo Games, which were originally scheduled for 2020, and organizers have scrambled to put in place preventive measures, such as banning international spectators, to ensure the safety of athletes and residents.
However, there's still concern that the Olympics could worsen the spread of the virus and Japan's rising caseload and slow vaccine rollout have raised public questions about whether the Games should be held at all.
Japan's Olympic Committee said Tuesday that North Korea has not yet notified it that it wouldn't participate in the Tokyo Games.
Katsunobu Kato, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, said the government hopes many countries will join the Olympics and he promised ample anti-virus measures.
South Korea's Unification Ministry expressed regret over the North's decision, saying it had hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which have declined amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Choi Young-sam, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the government supports Japan's efforts to push ahead with the Olympics while taking safety measures. Choi said there was still time for the North to reverse its decision and participate in the event.
North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, performance artists, journalists and a 230-member all-female cheering group.
At the Pyeongchang Games, the North and South Korean athletes jointly marched under a blue map symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, while the red-clad North Korean cheerleaders captivated global attention. The Koreas also fielded their first combined Olympic team in women's ice hockey, which drew passionate support from crowds despite losing all five of its games by 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 her brother's desire for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a move that helped the North initiate talks with South Korea and the United States.
Diplomatic efforts have been at a stalemate since, and North Korea's decision to sit out the Tokyo Olympics is a setback for hopes to revive it.
While North Korea has steadfastly claimed to be coronavirus-free, outsiders have expressed doubt about whether the country has escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and a porous border it shares with China, its economic lifeline.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a "matter of national existence," North Korea has severely limited cross-border traffic, banned tourists, jetted out diplomats and mobilized health workers with quarantine tens of thousands of people who had shown symptoms.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga previously said he expected to invite U.S. President Joe Biden to the Olympics and was willing to meet with Kim Jong Un or his sister if either attended the Games. Suga, however, did not say if he will invite either of them.
Experts say pandemic border closures have further shocked North Korea's economy, already broken by decades of mismanagement, aggressive military spending and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
The economic setbacks have left Kim with nothing to show for his ambitious diplomacy with former President Donald Trump, which derailed over disagreements in exchanging the release of sanctions and the North's nuclear disarmament steps.
Kim in recent political speeches has pledged to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of U.S.-led pressure, and his government has so far rejected the Biden administration's overture for talks, demanding that Washington abandon its "hostile" policies first.
The North ended a yearlong pause in ballistic testing activity last month by firing two short-range missiles off its eastern coast, continuing a tradition of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at measuring Washington's response and wresting concessions.