North Korea has become the first nation to publicly withdraw from the Tokyo Olympic Games due to coronavirus concerns. The country’s sports ministry made the announcement on Tuesday, marking the first time the country will miss a Summer Olympics since it boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea amid the cold war.
North Korea has won 56 Olympic medals in its history, 54 of which have come at the Summer Games. At the most recent Summer Olympics in Rio, North Korea won 2 gold, 3 silver, and 2 bronze medals, which ranked the country 34th among all nations on the medals table. Its recent Olympic successes have included medals in weightlifting, gymnastics, shooting, judo, wrestling, and table tennis events.
North Korea has never sent a pool swimmer to the Olympic Games, but has participated in other aquatics disciplines, including synchronized swimming and diving.
North Korea skipped the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, in spite of urging by FINA and the South Korean hosts to participate. They won 2 diving medals at the 2017 World Championships. Also in 2017, they sent a pair of female swimmers, with their top finisher being Jang Myong-gyong, who was 39th in the women’s 50 breaststroke in 35.11.
The country’s most recent World Championships gold medal came in 2015, when then-16 year old Kim Kuk-hyang won gold on women’s platform.
The Olympic Games have become an important unifying point between the two Koreas in the last half-decade. At the 2018 Games, hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea, athletes from both countries marched under a unified flag at the opening ceremonies, and even entered a combined women’s ice hockey team. Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attended the opening ceremony of those Games, which made waves as it made her the first member of the ruling Kim family to cross the border into South Korea.
The countries also recently launched a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games, although the formal issue of that bid came after Brisbane was pushed forward by the IOC as the probable host of the event.
With tensions again rising in the region after the North resumed missile tests, the absence from the Olympic Games cuts an opportunity to “foster peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas,” as South Korea’s Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs said they had hoped for the Games.
“We regret it could not happen,” it added in a statement.
“The committee decided not to join the 32nd Olympics Games to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus,” North Korea’s sports ministry said on its website.
North Korea claims officially that it has no coronavirus cases, but global health experts are skeptical of that claim in the isolated nation that rarely allows in outside observers.
The Olympic Games are planned for July 23-August 8, 2021, a one year delay from their original timing in 2020.