Protesters burn pictures of Kim Jong-un as North Korean girl band leader tours Seoul
Hyon Song-wol, a Pyongyang celebrity who heads the Moranbong Band, began a two-day visit on Sunday, triggering media frenzy in South Korea
Small but vocal groups of South Korean demonstrators on Monday protested North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics, as a delegation of North Korean officials led by star singer Hyon Song-wol visited Seoul and inspected Games’ venues.
Hyon, a Pyongyang celebrity who heads the Moranbong Band hand-picked by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, began a two-day visit on Sunday, triggering media frenzy in South Korea about the woman who is also in charge of the North’s artistic performance during the Olympics.
South Korean police intervened when one group of conservative critics burned a picture of Kim on the steps of Seoul’s central train station where Hyon and the rest of her team had earlier arrived from Gangwon province, where the Olympics will be held from February 9-25.
In a diplomatic breakthrough after a year of escalating tension over the North’s nuclear and missile programme, the IOC announced on Saturday that North Korea would send 22 athletes to the Winter Games and compete in three sports and five disciplines.
Holding a sign saying “We’re opposed to Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang Olympics!”, the protesters chanted that the North had “snatched” attention from South Korea’s long-awaited hosting of the Winter Olympics.
“The Pyeongchang Olympics is degrading to a Pyongyang Olympics of Kim Jong-un who is propagating the North Korean system and trying to make its nuclear weapons a done deal”, said Cho Won-jin, a ultra-conservative lawmaker who led the rally.
Police used fire extinguishers to quench the fire, but the activists later stamped on Kim’s photo and the flags and burned them.
Seoul police plan to investigate the protesters, according to Yonhap news agency.
Overall, a majority of South Koreans say they welcome North Korea taking part in the Games, and South Korean officials hope to use the thaw in relations to make a larger diplomatic breakthrough over the North’s rogue nuclear weapons programme.
A series of events including concerts, joint training exercises and sporting demonstrations are planned around Olympics.
Hyon, a wildly popular entertainer in the North, smiled and waved to residents who gathered to greet her as she arrived at a train station near the main Olympic Village of Pyeongchang earlier in the day.
“Seeing the citizens here welcoming us, I feel we will be able to successfully complete the concert”, Hyon was quoted as saying by a Seoul official, according to a South Korean media pool report.
Monday’s protests were small but highlighted the mixed reaction to the fragile detente between the two Koreas.
Some specific Olympic plans, including marching under a unity flag and forming a joint women’s ice hockey team, have proven controversial, with criticism coming from both traditional conservative detractors as well as younger South Koreans upset that an unchastened North Korea is stealing the spotlight.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said the lodging and transport costs for Hyon’s delegation were paid for by a South Korean government fund for cross-border cooperation.
“We are making accommodation for each other’s convenience, based on the principle of inter-Korean reciprocity”, ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing on Monday.
Additional reporting by Associated Press