South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (2nd R), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong (2nd L) and North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam (L) watch a concert during the Winter Olympics at a national theatre in Seoul in 2018. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

SEOUL – North Korea has announced it will not take part in this year’s Tokyo Olympics, dashing hopes in Seoul of initiating sports diplomacy on the sidelines of the event.

North Korea’s Olympic Committee reached the decision on March 25, according to a sporting website monitored by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. The committee cited safety concerns surrounding its athletes. 

North Korea is no trendsetter in either global affairs or the international sporting arena, meaning it is unlikely to kick off Tokyo’s nightmare scenario – a chain of boycotts by countries citing Covid-19 fears.

However, the announcement is yet another disappointment for South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration, which continues to be frustrated in its efforts to engage North Korea.

“The government had hoped to advance peace on the Korean peninsula and recognition and cooperation between the two Koreas upon the Tokyo Olympics,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification told Asia Times. “It is regrettable that we are unable to do so due to the Covid-19 situation.”

Seoul had sought to use the Olympic platform to re-initiate negotiations with North Korea. While the two competing Korean states have no diplomatic relations, they do have a history of attending global sporting events and even fielding joint teams at a range of international fixtures, offering rare opportunities for off-pitch contact.

Most particularly, North Korea’s last-minute decision to join the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2019, became a springboard for high-profile diplomatic interplay, including the visit of Kim Jong Un’s then largely unknown sister Kim Yo Jong to South Korea.  

Subsequently, Kim had a summit with Moon, and then – in a diplomatic coup largely brokered by Seoul – Kim met then-US President Donald Trump in a historic meeting in Singapore the same year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju, left, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook on the top of Mount Paektu on September 20, 2018, after their summit. Photo: AFP/Pyeongyang Press Corps

However, after Trump “walked” out of a second summit with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019, relations plummeted. North Korea is now refusing to engage with either South Korea or the United States.  

Meanwhile, North Korea’s relations with the new Joe Biden administration have made a rocky start. Last month, in an unprecedented development, Washington judicially renditioned a North Korean operative from Malaysia to stand trial in the United States on charges of breaking sanctions and money laundering. On March 25, North Korea test-fired a brace of ballistic missiles.  

The Biden administration’s months-long policy review on North Korea, which is expected to set the direction and trajectory for its policy toward the country, is expected this month.

Regardless of the political situation, North Korea’s decision not to go to Tokyo may well be based on real fears.

While North Korea has so far only admitted to finding only one Covid-19 infection – in a bizarre case, from a North Korean defector who re-defected to the North – the country has taken the pandemic extremely seriously, deploying extraordinarily tough quarantine measures.

Perhaps due to its primitive medical system, which is poorly equipped either to test or treat Covid cases, it has closed its border to its main trade partner and ally, China, stifling the cross border trade that keeps the country’s markets supplied with consumer goods, including foodstuffs. Elite troops have been deployed to border areas, to back up Border Guard units.

Analysts who watch North Korea say its economy, which had been heavily battered by UN Security Council sanctions before Covid struck, is perhaps in its most dire straits since the mid-1990s when it suffered murderous famines believed to have killed hundreds of thousands.

It is unclear whether today’s decision by North Korea not to join this year’s games will have any impact on a “long-shot” proposal submitted by Seoul to the International Olympic Committee on April 1. That proposal was for the South Korean and North Korean capitals to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympics – even though Brisbane, Australia was selected as preferred bidder in February of this year.

Before relations plummeted to their current low, the two Koreas had agreed on the co-hosting bid after the last inter-Korean summit in September 2018.