/ 28 April 2008

North Korea fetes torch with rally and songs

North Koreans waved flags, plastic flowers and danced in the streets of Pyongyang to welcome the Olympic torch on Monday after the destitute state had promised its main benefactor China an ”astonishing” show.

The torch began its two-day journey on the divided Korean peninsula on Sunday, where a frenetic and at times violent pro-Beijing rally in the South Korean capital by thousands of flag-waving Chinese students left many Seoul residents angry.

The global torch relay ahead of the Beijing Games in August has prompted protests against China’s rights record in Tibet as well as patriotic rallies by Chinese who criticise the West for vilifying Beijing.

There was almost no security needed in North Korea, a state human rights groups say kills prisoners in public with firing squads and uses guilt by association to intimidate the masses.

North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, was not on hand for the festivities, but tens of thousands of his citizens put on their finest clothes and cheered on cue as the torch made its journey to the hermit kingdom, according to pool video footage from Pyongyang.

Soldiers played military music, women in traditional garb and men in dark suits danced, pre-school girls rode unicycles and hundreds of North Koreans displayed taekwondo high kicks in unison along the route, the footage for foreign media showed.

North Korea, which the United States and others say has one of world’s the worst human rights records, does not allow rallies that anger Pyongyang’s leaders. Rights groups said the North imprisons or executes anyone who steps out of line.

The images from Pyongyang were in stark contrast to the relay events of London, Paris and San Francisco, where protesters jostled the torchbearers and screamed slogans slamming Beijing’s crackdown in Tibet earlier this year.

China has blamed the Dalai Lama for stirring up the unrest and accused him and his government in exile in India of trying to spoil the August Games, charges the Tibetan spiritual leader denies.

There have been calls from some Western politicians for world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics, a sentiment echoed by Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

”The leaders of the free world, for goodness sake, don’t attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games until it is quite clear that they [the Chinese] mean business and that they will stop the violence against the Tibetans,” Tutu said at a pro-Tibet rally in Cape Town.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament had also urged EU leaders to boycott the opening ceremony unless China started talks with the Dalai Lama.

Seemingly bowing to international pressure, Beijing said last Friday it would hold talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama.

A light in the hermit kingdom

An official from the isolated North, which rarely holds international events, was quoted by Xinhua as saying the torch relay would ”astonish the world”.

The torch wound its way along a 20km route that passed monuments celebrating the North’s founder, Kim Il-sung, his son and current ruler Kim Jong-il, and the ideology behind Asia’s only communist dynasty.

In South Korea, newspapers on Monday were critical of the violence carried out by a few of the Chinese students during the torch’s visit. For the most part, their rallies were peaceful.

Thousands of Chinese students were bussed in from all parts of South Korea, provided with Chinese flags, T-shirts and banners as they shouted pro-Beijing slogans as the torch made its way through Seoul, while many South Koreans turned away.

Internet message boards in one of the world’s most wired countries were flooded with comments saying the pro-Beijing display was in bad taste, did little to transmit any message of peace, and soured the appetite for the Olympics.

The torch next goes to Vietnam and then Hong Kong. – Reuters