North Korea has announced it will not take part in the Tokyo Olympics this year, saying the decision is to protect its athletes from Covid-19.
The decision puts an end to South Korea’s hopes of using the Games to engage with the North amid stalled cross-border talks.
In 2018, both sides entered a joint team at the Winter Olympics which led to a series of historic summits.
Pyongyang says it has no cases of the virus but experts say this is unlikely.
The announcement makes North Korea the first major country to skip the delayed 2020 Games because of the pandemic. The event is due to begin on 23 July.
The decision was made at a Olympic committee meeting on 25 March, according to a report by the state-run site Sports in the DPRK.
North Korea has taken stringent measures against the virus since it broke out last year.
It shut off its borders in late January and later quarantined hundreds of foreigners in its capital.
Since early last year, trains and wagons have been forbidden to enter or leave North Korea, with most international passenger flights stopped as well.
No international fans at Tokyo Olympics & Paralympics
Kim Jong-un’s sister to US: Don’t ’cause a stink’
There were hopes by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in that the games could be a catalyst for progress between both Koreas.
That had been the case in 2018, when North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, journalists and a 230-member cheering group.
Among the contingent was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong – a move which helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the US.The talks that followed led to a series of historic, high-profile meetings between the North Korean leader and former US President Donald Trump.
There were hopes for improved relations after the meetings, but nothing materialised and the atmosphere has since deteriorated.
North and South Korea are technically still at war because no peace agreement was reached when the Korean War ended in 1953.
Japan’s Covid concerns
Meanwhile, in Japan, an Olympic preparatory event was cancelled after Covid infections broke out at a training camp for the Japanese water polo team – with seven people testing positive for the virus.
It comes after the announcement that the Osaka leg of the Olympic torch relay would be cancelled as infections in the city hit record highs.
There have been growing concerns in Japan that more infectious strains of the virus could be driving a potential fourth wave of the virus in the country.