SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea cites the coronavirus, becoming the world’s first country to exit the Tokyo Olympics.
It is true that the North is extremely sensitive to COVID-19, knowing that a widespread outbreak in countries with already poor health systems can be disastrous.
But North Korea has previously used major sporting events to establish diplomacy with the United States in order to obtain much-needed sanctions in return for its nuclear disarmament. Some saw the pull-off from the Olympics as the North sent a message to Washington.
This is an overview of the North Korean decision and what it means.
Guaranteed fear of viruses
The state̵7;s website said on Tuesday that North Korea’s Olympic Committee had decided not to participate in the Tokyo Games, scheduled to begin in July, “to protect players from the global health crisis caused by COVID-19”.
North Korea has previously boycotted the Olympics and other international sporting events for political reasons or failed to appear when none of the athletes or teams qualified. But this is the first time North Korea has pulled out of an international sporting event citing infectious diseases, according to Seoul’s reunification ministry.
Pyongyang was notorious for withdrawing from talks with Seoul and Washington before returning at the last minute to boost their bargaining power. But because the country is so alert about COVID-19, experts say there is little chance of canceling the decision at the Olympics.
North Korea has demonstrated “coronavirus-related neuroses since the announcement of an emergency antivirus system in January last year,” said Park Won Gun, a North Korean education professor at Seoul’s Ewha Woman’s University.
Park said it was very unlikely that North Korea would have enough vaccines for 26 million people or report significant progress in the fight against the virus by July.
North Korean officials know how a major virus outbreak can happen in a country with public health care infrastructure that has been in chaos for decades. So far, North Korea has taken some of the most serious anti-virus procedures in the world, including shutting down international borders for 15 months and departing from foreign countries.
North Korea is still formally claimed to be corona-free, with foreign experts arguing.
North Korea’s decision to skip the Olympics shows that it “thinks dealing with foreigners is the most dangerous thing right now,” said Seo Yoo Seok of the North Korean Academy in Seoul.
Message for Washington
North Korea’s announcement three months before the start of the race could signal Pyongyang rejected Seoul’s repeated push to use the Olympics to set the mood for negotiations. It could also show a commitment to increase the pressure on US President Joe Biden’s new government.
North Korea is sending a message that it wants a direct deal with the United States now instead of using the Olympics as a contact point to Washington to negotiate, said Kwak Gil Sup, head of One Korea Center, a website specializing in North Korean affairs.
The now disrupted nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington began in 2018 following reconciliation on the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the south earlier that year.
During the Olympic Games, athletes from Korea marched together under the unification flag during the opening and establishment of Korea’s first joint team in women’s ice hockey. Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, became the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Little progress has been made in nuclear talks in the past two years. North Korea recently launched two missiles into the sea in its first test of the weapon in year. Kim Yo Jung warned Washington not to “stink” and called the South Korean president “the parrot that the United States had raised”.
Experts say North Korea eventually wants to negotiate with the Biden administration to ease sanctions and achieve better ties as its economy has been devastated by an epidemic, US-led sanctions and natural disasters when Last year
Seo analysts said North Korea was unsure of the benefits of participating in the Tokyo Games, as Biden made clear that he would not attend the made-for-TV summit with Kim Jong Un as his predecessor Donald Trump did.
“They knew they would come home empty-handed from Tokyo,” Seo said.
But North Korea’s domestic difficulties may soon push for negotiations with the United States to continue.
Seo said North Korea could conduct massive weapons tests, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, in the coming months if it was unhappy with the soon-to-be-completed review of the Biden’s North Korean policy.