SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea became the first country to drop out of the Tokyo Olympics because of coronavirus fears, a decision that underscores the challenges facing Japan as it struggles to stage a global sporting event amid a raging pandemic.
A website run by North Korea’s Sports Ministry said its national Olympic Committee during a meeting on March 25 decided not to participate in the Games to protect athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by COVID-19.”
The pandemic has already pushed back the Tokyo Games, which were originally scheduled for 2020, and organizers have scrambled to put in place preventive measures, such as banning international spectators, to ensure the safety of athletes and residents.
However, there’s still concern that the Olympics could worsen the spread of the virus and Japan’s rising caseload and slow vaccine rollout have raised public questions about whether the Games should be held at all.
Japan’s Olympic Committee said Tuesday that North Korea has not yet notified it that it wouldn’t participate in the Tokyo Games.
Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the government hopes many countries will join the Olympics and he promised ample anti-virus measures.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry expressed regret over the North’s decision, saying it had hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which have declined amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.