North Korea pulls out of Gwangju games, blames UN office

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North Korea pulls out of Gwangju games, blames UN office

North Korea cancelled an earlier plan to participate in the upcoming Gwangju Summer Universiade in protest of the opening today of a Seoul office by the UN human rights high commissioner, the Universiade organizing committee said Monday.

Pyongyang’s notification to the organizing committee of the event, scheduled to run from July 3 to July 14, came on Friday via email, according to Kim Yoon-suk, the committee’s secretary general.

“The North said that it could not take part in the event for political reasons because of the opening of the UN human rights office in Seoul,” said Kim during a press briefing in Gwangju.

Speculation that the North may boycott the event arose last week after it failed to meet the registration deadline on June 15. Some thought the North had become hesitant because of the ongoing outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), with its death toll at 27 as of Monday.

The North, however, did not mention MERS in its email but blamed the UN human rights field office for its change in plans.

In March, Pyongyang said it would send a delegation of 75 athletes and 33 coaches and officials to take part in the 12-day event.

North Korea’s backtracking is a letdown for the government, which hoped its participation could serve as an informal catalyst for easing tensions on the peninsula.

In October, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent three top officials to the Incheon Asian Games closing ceremony to meet with senior presidential officials, including security adviser Kim Kwan-jin.

Their appearance was momentarily interpreted as a breakthrough in bilateral ties, which deteriorated afterwards.

News reports that the UN would set up a field office exclusively dedicated to collecting evidence of state-orchestrated torture, imprisonment and executions in the North has raised the ire of Pyongyang.

In March, the North threatened that the site of the UN office would be the “first target of retribution” through the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Pyongyang also branded defectors who gave testimony of suffering inside prison camps as “human scum.”

While the North blamed the UN for its change of mind over participating in the games, Kim Keun-sik, professor of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that it may have complained about the UN office as “a cover to hide its fears about its delegations bringing MERS across the border into the North,” which lacks sufficient medical and quarantine systems.

“The opening of the UN field office will not significantly affect inter-Korean relations as Pyongyang already issued a statement condemning the UN last year for its passage of a resolution on human rights violations in North Korea,” said Kim.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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