Olympic torch begins first-ever relay in North Korea

Peaceful crowd watches start of relay; earlier, China's treatment of N. Korean refugees sparks protests against relay in Seoul.

N. Korea torch 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
N. Korea torch 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Olympic torch launched its first-ever run Monday in authoritarian North Korea, where the flame was assured of a trouble-free trip unlike other stops worldwide. An attentive and peaceful crowd of thousands watched the start of the relay in Pyongyang, some waving Chinese flags, in live footage from broadcaster APTN. The event was presided over by the head of the country's rubber-stamp parliament who often acts as a ceremonial state leader, Kim Yong Nam. The North, an ally of communist neighbor China, has been critical of disruptions to the torch relay elsewhere and has supported Beijing in its crackdown against violent protests in Tibet. North Korea is one of the world's most tightly controlled countries, where citizens are not allowed to travel freely and civil rights are restricted by the iron-fisted regime. Kim passed the torch to the first runner Pak Du Ik, who played on North Korea's 1966 World Cup soccer team that made a historic run to the quarterfinals. As he began the 20-kilometer route through Pyongyang, thousands more cheering people lined city streets waving pink paper flowers and small flags with the Beijing Olympics logo. The relay began from beneath the large sculpted flame that tops the obelisk of the Juche Tower, which commemorates the national ideology of "self-reliance" created by the country's late founding President Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim was not seen at the event. The UN children's agency UNICEF had been asked to participate in the North Korean leg of the relay but withdrew in March, saying that it wasn't sure the event would help its mission of raising awareness of conditions for children. The North's children are often the most at-risk for starvation in the regular food shortages that plague the country. The problem is expected to be more severe this year due to poor harvests caused by massive floods last summer that wiped out large swaths of the country's most productive farmland. The torch arrived earlier Monday in North Korea by plane from rival South Korea, where China's treatment of North Korean refugees sparked protests against the relay. On Sunday, clashes broke out in Seoul near the relay start between a group of 500 Chinese supporters and about 50 demonstrators criticizing Beijing's policies, carrying a banner reading, "Free North Korean refugees in China." The students threw stones and water bottles as some 2,500 police tried to keep the two sides apart. One Chinese student swatted at the demonstrators with a flagpole. Another student was arrested for allegedly throwing rocks, police said. Police said four other people were arrested for trying to disrupt the relay Authorities deployed some 8,000 police - some riding horses and bicycles - to protect the torch. One North Korean defector poured gasoline on himself in the middle of a street along the route and tried to set himself on fire, but police quickly surrounded him and carried him away. The man, 45-year-old Son Jong Hoon, had led an unsuccessful public campaign to save his brother from execution in the North, where he was accused of spying after the two met secretly in China.