The announcement was made by North Korea’s Sports Ministry. It marks the first time the country’s athletes will miss a Summer Olympics since it boycotted Seoul in 1988 amid the Cold War.
Plans to withdraw were made on March 25 during a meeting of North Korea’s Olympic committee and Sports Minister Kim Il Guk, the ministry said on its website.
“The committee decided not to join the 32nd Olympics Games to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus,” the ministry said.
Pyongyang maintains that it has no CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus cases, however, experts say this isn’t likely. The country previously described its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” and has banned tourists, restricted cross-border traffic, among other measures.
The North’s withdrawal from Tokyo dashes hopes for a combined Korean team in the major international sporting event, something that had been planned by South South Korean President Moon Jae-in in hopes to rebuild momentum for improved inter-Korean relations.
The two countries are still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and relations have deteriorated recently amid a stalemate in nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea.
It’s also a setback for plans, agreed at a 2018 summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to pursue a joint Korean bid to host the 2032 Games.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry leading inter-Korean affairs said in a statement that Seoul had hoped the summer Olympics would present an opportunity “foster peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas.”
“We regret it could not happen,” the ministry added.
Seoul’s foreign ministry spokesperson Choi Young-sam added that the government hopes Pyongyang will still participate in the event.
“We support Japan’s hosting of the Olympics with anti-coronavirus measures, and as the Olympics is a festival of world peace, and there is time left ahead, we hope that North Korea will participate,” the spokesperson told reporters.
Tokyo Olympic organizers said in a statement that it will continue to “prepare the best possible stage to welcome athletes from all countries and regions.”
Tokyo’s summer Olympics is due to begin on July 23, and will be held without foreign spectators.
Reuters contributed to this report.