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North Korea says it’ll skip Tokyo Olympics due to COVID-19

A boat sails past the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Rings on March 25, 2020, in Tokyo, Japan. (Carl Court/Getty Images/TNS)

North Korea has decided not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus, a state-run sports website reported, a move that could make it the first major country to skip the games because of the pandemic.

The decision to miss the Olympics scheduled to start in July was made March 25 by the country’s Olympics committee, which cited the need to protect its athletes amid the global health crisis, Sports in the DPR Korea, a website run by North Korea’s sports ministry, said Tuesday.

The upcoming Olympics in long-time adversary Japan offered an opportunity for Kim Jong Un’s isolated regime to engage with the outside world. But Kim has imposed strict measures to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country, being among the first in the world to close borders even though the move halted what little was left of the heavily sanctioned country’s legal trade.

North Korea says it has no cases of the coronavirus — a claim doubted by U.S. and Japanese officials — but has nonetheless taken drastic quarantine steps that have worsened the regime’s economic woes.

North Korea, which won seven medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016, has been keenly aware of the politics of its participation in the global sports spectacle. It joined the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and skipped the 1988 Summer Olympics in rival South Korea.

At the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, it sent Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s sister, to South Korea to attend the games as part of an Olympic detente. The move eventually led to a series of high-level meetings for Kim Jong Un that culminated with a summit with Donald Trump several months later in Singapore — the first meeting between a North Korean leader and sitting U.S. president.

Pyongyang has also viewed Japan as its enemy for decades, threatening to “sink” its neighbor and adding hundreds of missiles to its arsenal that could hit Japan and the U.S. bases where tens of thousands of American soldiers are stationed.

Still, there was little indication that North Korea would skip the games. At a video meeting of the North Korean Olympic Committee on March 25, members called for “winning more medals in international games during the period of the new five-year plan to add glory to our dignified nation,” the state’s official Korean Central News Agency reported, without mentioning the Tokyo Olympics and whether North Korea would attend.

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