North Korean authorities recently announced that they would not participate in the Tokyo Olympic Games in July, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as their reason not to attend. Following the announcement, Daily NK learned that the authorities decided the matter under the authorization of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself.

After Daily NK conducted an analysis of the available information, the evidence seems to suggest that there remains only a remote possibility that North Korean authorities will reverse their decision and participate in the Tokyo Olympics.

Last Thursday, a high-ranking source told Daily NK that the North Korean Olympic Committee hosted an online meeting on Mar. 25. During the meeting, participants discussed the status of Olympics preparations for individual sports events and athletes’ training schedules and records. Also, party representatives notified sports officials that the Party had decided against participating in the Tokyo Olympics.

North Korea’s leadership decided not to attend the Tokyo Olympics after Kim Jong Un signed off on the decision, and the Central Committee reportedly notified the Ministry of Sports before the North Korean Olympic Committee opened the online meeting.

This version of events contradicts announcements by the Ministry of Sports, which reportedly claimed that they made the decision after participants discussed the matter during the online meeting.

The North Korean Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports posted their decision on the front page of “Sports in the DPR Korea” on Apr. 6. The text read: “the DPRK Olympic Committee discussed the suggestions of its members and decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympic Games in order to protect players from the world public health crisis caused by COVID-19.”

However, due to the nature of North Korea’s political system, it is more likely that Kim Jong Un ratified the decision and then had sports ministry members hold a perfunctory vote.

The South Korean government, meanwhile, is focusing on “how” the North Koreans announced their decision to withdraw.

2018 inter-Korean summit human rights
South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the third 2018 inter-Korean summit. / Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

“Since the Olympics are a celebration of world peace, we expect North Korea to participate, especially because there is [still plenty of] time remaining [for them to change their minds],” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Choi Young-sam said during an Apr. 6 briefing. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other related government sectors are closely monitoring the ways they used to make the decision as well as the format of the announcement published on the homepage and other situational factors.”

Choi explained that because the announcement was published on the “Sports in the DPRK” website operated by the Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports instead of official news agencies such as the Rodong Sinmun or on the Korean Central News Agency, it is difficult to conclude that the decision is an official announcement from North Korean authorities. In short, South Korea’s foreign ministry appears to believe that there is a possibility that North Korea will reverse its decision and attend the Olympics.

However, Daily NK’s source explained that the decision to publish the announcement on the “Sports in the DPRK” website was due to authorities’ concerns about domestic public sentiment, not reluctance to make the decision final.

“Ordinary North Koreans also know that the Olympics are an international competition held every four years. Some people get excited about the Olympics,” the source said. “[The authorities] feel there is no need to tell the public earlier than is necessary that North Korean Olympic athletes can’t go to Japan because of COVID-19.”

The North Korean authorities reportedly judged that if people learned about North Korea’s withdrawal from the Olympics, it could cause political unrest in the country and anxiety about COVID-19. 

On the other hand, President Moon Jae-in has shown his determination to use the Tokyo Olympics to revitalize the “Korean Peninsula Peace Process.”

“The Tokyo Summer Olympic Games scheduled for this year may serve as an opportunity for dialogue between Korea and Japan, South and North Korea, North Korea and Japan, and North Korea and the United States,” said Moon during a speech commemorating the Mar. 1 Movement last month. “Korea will work together with Japan for the success of the Olympics.”

However, Daily NK’s source claimed that the North Korean authorities did not factor the potential for political contact with South Korea into their decision to withdraw from the Olympics. 

“[North Korean authorities] had no plans nor do they consider making contact with South Korea during the Tokyo Olympics,” the source said. “To my knowledge, it has never even been the subject of discussion.”

*Translated by S & J

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to