SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea, citing the coronavirus, has become the first country in the world to drop out of the Tokyo Olympics.
It is true that the North is extremely sensitive to COVID-19, knowing that a widespread outbreak in a country with an already battered health system could be a disaster.
But North Korea has also previously used major sporting events to establish diplomacy with the United States aimed at winning much-needed sanctions relief in exchange for promises of nuclear disarmament. Some view withdrawing from the Olympics as if the North were sending a message to Washington.
Here’s a look at the North Korean decision and what it could mean.
LEGITIMATE FEARS OF VIRUSES
A state website said Tuesday that North Korea’s Olympic Committee decided not to participate in the Tokyo Games scheduled to begin in July “to protect players from the global 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. But this is the first time North Korea has pulled out of a major international sporting event citing an infectious disease, according to the Seoul Unification Ministry.
Pyongyang has earned a reputation for withdrawing from talks with Seoul and Washington before returning at the last minute to increase its bargaining power. But given that the country has been on high alert for COVID-19, experts say there is little chance it will reverse its Olympic decision.
North Korea has displayed “a coronavirus-related neurosis since declaring an emergency antivirus system in January last year,” said Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul.
Park said North Korea is highly unlikely to secure enough vaccines for its 26 million people or report major progress in its anti-virus fight by July.
North Korean officials know how disastrous a major virus outbreak would be in a nation with a public health infrastructure that has been in shambles for decades. So far, North Korea has taken some of the most draconian anti-virus measures in the world, including closing its international borders for 15 months and the departure of foreign nationals.
North Korea still officially claims to be free of coronavirus, a claim many foreign experts dispute.
North Korea’s decision to skip the Olympics shows that it “believes that contact with foreigners is the most dangerous thing right now,” said Seo Yu-Seok of the Seoul-based Institute of North Korean Studies.
A MESSAGE TO WASHINGTON
North Korea’s announcement, three months before the Games start, could indicate that Pyongyang is rejecting a repeated push from Seoul to use the Olympics to create an atmosphere for dialogue. It could also show a determination to increase pressure on the new administration of US President Joe Biden.
North Korea is sending the message that it wants to deal directly with the United States now instead of using the Olympics as a place to communicate with Washington for talks, said Kwak Gil Sup, director of One Korea Center, a website specializing in North Korean affairs. .
The now-stalled nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington began in 2018 after a reconciliation on the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the South earlier that year.
During those Olympics, Korean athletes marched together under a single unifying flag during the opening ceremony and formed the first joint Korean team in women’s ice hockey. Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, became the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
There has been little progress in the nuclear talks in the past two years. North Korea recently launched two ballistic missiles into the sea in the first such test in a year. Kim Yo Jong warned Washington not to “cause a bad smell” and called the South Korean president “a US-bred parrot.”
Experts say North Korea eventually wants to talk to the Biden administration for sanctions relief and better ties because its economy has been devastated by the pandemic, U.S.-led sanctions and natural disasters in the past year.
Analyst Seo said North Korea was probably unsure of the benefits of attending the Tokyo Games because Biden made it clear that he will not participate in made-for-television summits with Kim Jong Un as did his predecessor Donald Trump.
“They knew they would come home empty-handed from Tokyo,” Seo said.
But North Korea’s internal difficulties may push it into talks with the United States soon.
Seo said North Korea could conduct major weapons tests, such as launching an ICBM, in the coming months if it is not satisfied with the Biden government’s North Korean policy review that is expected to be completed. early.