Even in absence, North Korea's presence felt at Tokyo Games

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FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2018, record photo, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean person Kim Jong Un, right, and North Korea's nominal caput of authorities Kim Yong Nam, 2nd right, beryllium adjacent to Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, arsenic they get to ticker the preliminary circular of the women's hockey crippled betwixt Switzerland and the combined Koreas astatine the 2018 Winter Olympics successful Gangneung, South Korea. Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, made the first-ever sojourn to the South by a subordinate of the ruling Kim dynasty since the extremity of the 1950-53 Korean War. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

TOKYO – North Korea isn't astatine the Tokyo Olympics this summer. And therein lies a communicative — 1 of sports and viruses, but astir of each a communicative of analyzable politics.

While it's not making headlines here, the North’s lack is noteworthy, particularly among those who ticker the intersection of sports and diplomacy — and the mode North Korea’s propaganda instrumentality uses planetary attraction to beforehand its needs.

The no-show is particularly striking erstwhile contrasted with the past Games. Perhaps the hottest communicative of the 2018 Winter Olympics successful Pyeongchang, South Korea, was the North Korean delegation, which included 22 athletes, hundreds of cheerleaders and person Kim Jong Un’s almighty sister.

The coronavirus is the biggest crushed for North Korea’s determination not to travel to Tokyo. Always highly delicate to communicable illness outbreaks, the federation has unopen its borders adjacent much tightly than normal, disquieted that its fragile wellness attraction strategy and rickety system could not withstand a large outbreak. That, successful turn, could imperil the ruling Kim family's grip connected power.


But determination are different things astatine work, too, according to analysts.

North Korean sports, similar overmuch astir the country, are intertwined with calculations astir its pursuit of a nuclear-armed long-range rocket programme to people the U.S. mainland. After a little play of engagement, Kim Jong Un present fears the instauration of different microorganism — the taste 1 from the affluent South — and whitethorn beryllium biding his clip until adjacent year’s Winter Games. Those instrumentality spot successful China, its longtime state with which it shares a onshore border.

Kim whitethorn person besides decided there's thing to beryllium gained by atomic diplomacy astatine the Tokyo games, arsenic Washington shows nary volition of accepting Pyongyang's request to extremity sanctions.

Neither bash sports beryllium successful a void wrong the North, wherever home audiences devour messages controlled by the authorities each measurement of the way. Everything determination is imaginable fodder for the propaganda mavens who effort to support home unity and authorities loyalty.


Kim Jong Un whitethorn usage the North’s lack from the Tokyo Games arsenic a mode to awesome to his radical that helium values protecting them from the coronavirus — successful rival Japan, nary little — much than the imaginable glory his athletes could person enjoyed.

“North Korea excels successful propaganda astatine planetary athletics events,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies prof astatine the Fletcher School astatine Tufts University successful Massachusetts.

So it was apt a pugnacious determination for North Korea not to be the Tokyo Games, “which it could person dominated successful the propaganda tract by sending a fewer athletes, cheerleaders, and First Sister Kim Yo Jong,” Lee said, referring to the leader's sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Missing a accidental to people propaganda points “reflects immoderate superior COVID paranoia,” Joshua Pollack, a North Korea adept astatine the Middlebury Institute of International Studies astatine Monterey, said of the North’s determination not to attend. The state intelligibly isn't acceptable for the delta variant, helium says, "and the Olympic colony seems similar a large mode to bring it home.”


September brought a vivid illustration of North Korea’s microorganism fears. Seoul accused the North of fatally shooting a South Korean fishery authoritative recovered successful the North’s waters and past burning his assemblage — moves seemingly successful enactment with an anti-virus argumentation that involves shooting anyone crossing the borderline illegally.

“They don’t person medicines to cure COVID-19, their aesculapian infrastructure isn’t successful bully signifier and they’re not receiving vaccines,” said Kim Yeol Soo, an expert with South Korea’s Korea Institute for Military Affairs. “So they mightiness not deliberation that going to the Olympics and winning a mates of golden medals means that much.”

Geopolitical considerations mightiness besides beryllium astatine play. Unlike the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, wherever North Korea was profoundly funny successful reaching hearts and minds successful the South, determination is nary specified tendency to marque bully with Japan, which was the convulsive assemblage overlord of the Korean Peninsula earlier and during World War II.


At Pyeongchang, North Korea had nary existent medal contenders, but it was among the astir watched nations astatine the Games, with a immense delegation highlighted by a 229-member all-female cheering squad.

After months of U.S.-North Korean tensions up of those Games, athletes from some Koreas marched unneurotic into the Olympic Stadium beneath a “unification’” flag. They fielded a associated women’s crystal hockey team. And Kim Yo Jong made the first-ever sojourn to the South by a subordinate of the Kim dynasty since the extremity of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Diplomacy blossomed aft these Games, too, highlighted by respective summits betwixt then-U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, and besides by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Not overmuch came of it, however, and North Korea inactive faces the hardline sanctions that are crippling its economy. So it has since engaged small with its rivals, though this week the Koreas restored suspended connection channels and agreed to amended ties.


When North Korea does amusement up astatine the Olympics, sports often instrumentality a backmost spot to politics. The federation goes to large lengths to power its athletes and its message, but determination are inactive surprising, unscripted moments of interaction with different athletes. At Pyeongchang, for instance, a selfie taken by smiling North and South Korean skaters went viral online.

And what astir sports themselves? North Korea could person seen occurrence astatine Tokyo successful weightlifting, boxing, women’s wrestling and women’s marathon. Fears, however, look to person outweighed the perceived benefits.

Those see worries astir extracurricular influences, particularly South Korean culture, infiltrating the country. “The opposition betwixt the prosperous South and the struggling North is that overmuch little palatable these days,” Pollack said.

Some expect North Korea to look again from its self-imposed lockdown adjacent twelvemonth erstwhile China, a cardinal governmental and assistance lifeline, hosts the Winter Games.


If past behaviour is an indication, weapons tests mightiness instrumentality spot successful the months earlier those Games. While the North volition apt debar thing considered a provocation during the Tokyo Games, specified tests could travel erstwhile U.S. and South Korean soldiers behaviour their yearly subject drills adjacent month.

“Confrontation followed by dialog ever works best” for North Korea, said Lee, the Tufts professor. “I expect the authorities to summation its ‘net value’ — arsenic apical athletes bash successful planetary athletics contention — with a superb performance, of the martial kind, earlier the Beijing Winter Games.”


AP writer Hyung-jin Kim successful Seoul contributed to this story. Foster Klug, quality manager for Japan, the Koreas, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific astatine The Associated Press, has been covering Asia since 2005 and is based successful Tokyo. More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This worldly whitethorn not beryllium published, broadcast, rewritten oregon redistributed without permission.

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