Conservative activists burned a large photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as the head of the North's extremely popular girl band passed by them Monday during her visit to Seoul amid a flurry of cooperation between the rivals ahead of next month's Winter Olympics in the South.
Hyon Song Wol, a Pyongyang celebrity who heads the Moranbong Band hand-picked by Kim, 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.
It has been rare for such a high-profile North Korean figure to travel to South Korea in recent years as they saw their ties deteriorating over the North Korean nuclear standoff before they recently abruptly sought to improve ties this month ahead of the Feb. 9-25 Olympics.
After her visits to potential venues for North Korean performances in an eastern city, Hyon arrived back Monday morning at the Seoul railway station where she saw about 150 to 200 activists rallying against her visit and recent inter-Korean rapprochement deals. "Pyeongchang Olympics? We oppose Kim Jong Un's Pyongyang Olympics," they chanted referring to the North Korean capital.
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Hyon saw the activists but did not react. After she left the scene, the demonstrators used a blowtorch to burn Kim's photo, a North Korean flag and a "unification flag" that athletes of the rival Koreas plan to carry together during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. 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.
Hyon's arrival has made her the subject of intense South Korean media attention, with photographers following her every move and TV stations aggressively reporting not only her career and band but also her fox-fur muffler, boots and facial expressions.
The band, with the young women in short skirts and high heels dancing and singing odes to Kim, draws global attention even though little information is available about it or about Hyon to outsiders. South Korean media say she is an army colonel and is close to Kim, but little else is known.
South Korea's liberal government led by President Moon Jae-in sees North Korea's participation in the Games — both in sporting events and cultural exchanges — as a way to calm tensions caused by Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile tests and war of words with the United States. The two Koreas agreed to field their first unified Olympic team, in women's hockey, and have their athletes march together under the joint flag depicting their peninsula during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony.
Some of the Olympic proposals like a unified hockey team and the use of the joint flag have caused a heated debate in South Korea, reflecting changes in public views toward North Korea which has been rapidly expanding its nuclear and missile arsenals in recent years.
South Korea's main conservative opposition party expressed its complaint over what it calls too much security arrangements provided for Hyon. "The Moon government is offering gracious hospitality to a North Korean army colonel as if she's a queen ... Did they forget North Korea had until recently been threatening to turn South Korea into a sea of fire with its nuclear weapons and missiles?" a party statement said.
The current mood of reconciliation between the Koreas flared after North Korea's Kim abruptly expressed his willingness to improve ties and send a delegation to the Olympics during his annual New Year's address. Outside critics have dismissed Kim's overture as a tactic to use improved ties with Seoul to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions over North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile programs.
Hyon, who is also an alternate member of the ruling party's Central Committee, was travelling with six other North Koreans. Her delegation inspected possible venue sites in Gangneung, where some Olympic games are scheduled to take place, on Sunday and is to do the same in Seoul on Monday.
Her Moranbong Band is not to visit South Korea during the Games, but she's to head a little-known 140-member art troupe which is to perform twice during the Olympics — one in Gangneung and the other in Seoul. The art troupe, which comprises orchestra members, singers and dancers, is part of North Korea's Olympic delegation that also includes athletes, officials, journalists and a taekwondo demonstration team.