North Korea has announced it will skip the Tokyo Olympics this year, saying the decision is to protect its athletes from Covid-19.
Pyongyang’s decision puts an end to South Korea’s hopes of using the Games to engage with the North amid stalled cross-border talks.
In 2018, North and South Korea entered a joint team at the Winter Olympics which led to a series of historic summits.
North Korea says it has no cases of the virus but experts say this is unlikely.
The announcement makes North Korea the first major country to skip the delayed 2020 Games because of the pandemic. The event is due to begin on 23 July.
This will be the first time North Korea has missed a Summer Olympics since 1988, when it boycotted the Seoul Games during the Cold War.
According to a report by the state-run site Sports in the DPRK, the decision was made at an Olympic committee meeting on March 25.
North Korea has taken stringent measures against the coronavirus since it broke out last year.
It shut its borders in late January and later quarantined hundreds of foreigners in its capital.
Since early 2020, trains and wagons have been forbidden to enter or leave North Korea, with most international passenger flights stopped as well.
There were hopes from South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in that the Games could be a catalyst for progress between both Koreas.
That had been the case in 2018, when North Korea sent 22 athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, journalists and a 230-member cheering group.
Among the contingent was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong – a move which helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the US.
The talks that followed led to a series of historic, high-profile meetings between Kim Jong-un and former President Donald Trump.
There were hopes for improved relations after the meetings, but nothing materialized and the atmosphere has since deteriorated.
Meanwhile, in Japan, an Olympic preparatory event was canceled after Covid infections broke out at a training camp for the Japanese water polo team – with seven people testing positive for the virus.
It follows the announcement that the Osaka leg of the Olympic torch relay will be canceled after infections in the city hit record highs.
There have been growing concerns in Japan that more infectious strains of the virus could be driving a potential fourth Covid-19 wave in the country.