North Korea has pulled out of this year’s Tokyo Olympics because of the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming the first country to officially withdraw from the games.
According to reports, the decision was taken by North Korea’s National Olympic Committee in a meeting on Monday to protect athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by Covid-19,” a statement said.
North Korea has insisted that it has had no coronavirus cases, but health experts have raised doubts over the claim.
It is the first time North Korea has skipped a Summer Olympics since it boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
The pandemic has already delayed the Tokyo games, which are now scheduled to begin in July. Organisers have said they will hold a safe and secure Olympics, but medical experts have advised against holding the games because the risks are too high.
Concerns have been raised over Japan’s ongoing coronavirus cases and a slow vaccine rollout. The country has seen an increase in cases in recent days with its total caseload reaching 486,792, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. Health authorities are concerned that new coronavirus variants could be driving the latest surge.
Osaka city cancelled its Olympic Torch relay events amid a resurgence in Covid-19 cases, but prime minister Yoshihide Suga has said the games will go ahead as scheduled.
Japan’s Olympic committee said on Tuesday it has not yet been notified about North Korea’s decision.
South Korea’s unification ministry expressed regret, saying it had hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, according to the Associated Press.
North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in the South Korean city of Pyongyang. Kim Yo-jong, the sister and close confidant of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, attended the opening ceremony.
Tension has risen since last month when the North resumed missile tests. The United States, South Korea and Japan agreed last week to work together to keep up the pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and ballistic missiles.