North Korea says it will skip the Beijing Olympics because of the pandemic


SEOUL — North Korea said Friday it will not compete in the Beijing Winter Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic and movements of “hostile forces.”

Failure to appear at the Beijing Games would deprive South Korea of ​​a rare opportunity to establish official contact with the North. Southern officials hoped the Olympics would provide official delegates from the two Koreas with a meeting place to discuss issues other than sports.

In a hand-delivered letter to China on Wednesday from the North’s ambassador, the country’s Olympic Committee and its sports ministry wished Beijing a successful Games even though “the United States and its vassal forces are becoming increasingly more disguised in their actions against China aimed at preventing the successful opening of the Olympics,” according to North Korea’s official Central News Agency on Friday.

The letter adds that although North Korea “cannot participate in the Olympics due to the movements of hostile forces and the global pandemic”, it “will fully support the Chinese comrades in all their work to organize a splendid and marvellous”.

The 2022 Winter Olympics have been hit by a series of diplomatic boycotts by Australia, Britain, the United States and other countries as human rights groups and Western governments have accused China of atrocities in its Xinjiang region.

North Korea called the boycotts “an insult to the spirit of the International Olympic Charter and a despicable act aimed at dishonouring China’s international image”.

The North is one of China’s closest allies. It depends on China for most of its foreign trade while battling heavy UN sanctions over its development of nuclear weapons. But his chances of joining next month’s Olympics in Beijing have been in doubt in recent months.

In September, the International Olympic Committee suspended North Korea’s national Olympic committee until the end of 2022 for skipping the Tokyo Olympiad last year, also due to coronavirus fears. But the committee had left the door open to the participation of individual North Korean athletes.

North Korea has maintained some of the toughest restrictions in the world to guard against the spread of the virus. It rejected outside help and closed its borders, apparently placing its guards there under “shoot to kill” orders. The country has claimed no cases of Covid-19 and rejected offers of millions of doses of the vaccine, leaving its people vulnerable to explosive outbreaks if its borders reopen.

South Korean officials had hoped the Beijing Olympics could provide a venue where officials from the United States, China and the two Koreas could meet. In one of his last diplomatic moves before leaving office, scheduled for May, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea urged those countries to join his government in declaring an end to the Korean War in order to encourage the North to denuclearize.

But that dream suffered setbacks as senior US officials avoided the Games and North Korea called the South’s proposal premature.

North Korea first presented at the Summer Olympics in 1972 and has since competed in every Summer Games except when it joined the Soviet-led boycott of the Summer Olympics of 1984 and when it boycotted the 1988 Games organized by its rival South Korea. North Korean athletes have won 16 gold medals, mainly in weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, boxing and judo.

The 2018 Winter Olympics, held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, helped bring the two Koreas closer together. Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, became the first member of the Kim family to cross the South Korean border to attend the opening ceremony.

Mr Kim used the North’s participation in Pyeongchang as a signal to kick off diplomacy after a series of nuclear and long-range missile tests. Soon, inter-Korean dialogue followed, leading to three summit meetings between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon. Mr. Kim has also met with President Donald J. Trump three times.

But since Mr. Kim’s diplomacy collapsed with Mr. Trump in 2019, North Korea has shunned official contact with South Korea or the United States. The pandemic has deepened his diplomatic isolation and economic hardship. On Wednesday, he launched what he called a hypersonic missile.

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