- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

SEOUL (AP) — Chinese students clashed with anti-Beijing demonstrators at the Olympic torch relay yesterday in Seoul, throwing rocks and punches at the latest stop on the flame”s troubled round-the-world journey.

A North Korean defector tried to set himself on fire to halt the relay, where thousands of police guarded the flame from protesters blasting China”s treatment of North Korean refugees.

But the small groups of anti-China demonstrators were far outnumbered by seas of red-clad Chinese supporters who waved red national flags as they took to the streets of the South Korean capital to defend the torch.

Police deployed 8,000 officers — some running beside the flame, others riding horses and bicycles with the relay through the city, which hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics.

China”s crackdown on violent protests against Chinese rule in Tibet has triggered attempts to disrupt the torch run celebrating the August games at other stops of the torch relay.

The torch arrived early today in North Korea by plane and began its first-ever run through the country, where the flame was assured of a trip free of the anti-Chinese protests that marked other legs of the relay.

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.

Mr. Kim passed the torch to the first runner Pak Du-ik, who played on the 1966 North Korean World Cup soccer team that made a historic run to the quarterfinals. As he began the 12-mile route through Pyongyang, thousands of cheering people lined the city streets waving pink paper flowers and small flags with the Beijing Olympics logo.

In South Korea, many critics focused on Beijing”s treatment of defectors who try to escape their lives of hardship in North Korea.

Thousands of North Koreans have fled across the loosely controlled Chinese border, and many remain in hiding in China. If caught, they are deported to face likely imprisonment in life-threatening conditions back in the North.

The man who tried to immolate himself, Son Jong-hoon, 45, 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. About an hour into the relay, Mr. Son poured gasoline on himself in the middle of a street, but police quickly surrounded him and carried him away before he could set himself on fire.

Two other demonstrators tried to storm the torch but failed to hinder its 15-mile trip from Olympic Park — built in honor of the 1988 Summer Games — to City Hall.

Police said five people, including a Chinese student, were arrested.

Scuffles broke out near the relay start between a group of 500 Chinese supporters and about 50 demonstrators criticizing Beijing who carried a banner that read: “Free North Korean refugees in China.” The demonstrators threw stones and water bottles as 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 reportedly throwing rocks, said an official at a police station near Olympic Park. The official asked not to be named because the investigation was under way.

“The Olympics are not a political issue,” said Sun Cheng, 22, a Chinese student studying the Korean language in Seoul. “I can”t understand why the Korean activist groups are protesting human rights or other diplomatic issues.”

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