Thousands of young Chinese demonstrators put on a rousing, if controversial, show of national pride Sunday as the Olympic torch passed through Seoul en route to Beijing for the 2008 Games.A sea of Chinese flags greeted the opening of the relay in Seoul's Olympic Park, far outnumbering the flags of Tibetan activists as well as signs denouncing China's policies toward North Korean defectors.
As the march began from Olympic Park in southern Seoul, Chinese youths responded with jeers and taunts, then hurled rocks at those protesting China's policies on Tibet and North Korea. Thousands of police officers battled to keep the demonstrators away from the torch, amid intermittent scuffles between protesters on the way to an elaborate ceremony on the square in front of City Hall.
The display of Chinese patriotism offended many Koreans, including protesters as well as passersby who wondered whether such behavior was appropriate on Korean soil.
"It's truly a shame on China what they did today," says Park Jie Hae, with Justice for North Korea, dedicated to pressing for human rights for North Koreans. "They were too aggressive. They don't have any idea about human rights."
North Koreans carried signs focusing on China's policy of sending North Korean refugees back to North Korea rather than admitting them as refugees. "China's cruelty kills Olympic spirit," said one sign.
One North Korean defector, Son Jong Hoon, doused himself with gasoline and was about to set fire to himself when police stopped him. Police said he was protesting the Chinese decision to send his brother back to North Korea – and certain execution – after his arrest on espionage charges.
Strong Chinese showing – organized?
But anti-China protests were minor compared with the turnout of the Chinese. Only about 300 North Korean defectors and activists working on their behalf showed up at Olympic Park. Far fewer were seen on the fringes of the City Hall square.
Tibetan refugees were also in a minority, shouting anti-Chinese slogans at the Chinese as they faced off from opposite sides of a main street in central Seoul.
Chinese demonstrators erupted in cheers of "Go China" and "China, China, China" as they rushed down the avenues leading into the City Hall square.
Demonstrators said they had bought their own flags. "Do you think we got these from our embassy," asked a young man who said he worked for a nearby company. "It is all spontaneous."
Rally workers, however, were handing out flags along with signs and T-shirts, and buses were seen carrying Chinese from far outside the city. Police estimated that as many as 8,000 Chinese joined the demonstration, equaling the number of police officers on the scene.
No Chinese officials were visible, and the Chinese embassy offered no comment.
Some critics say they suspect it did play a role. At the least, "there was meticulous planning," says Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands Korea, an organization that provides assistance to North Korean refugees.
The 15-mile torch relay, accompanied by bicyclists and policemen on horses, took more than four hours to reach City Hall. There, Chinese and Korean songs wafted from loudspeakers on either side of an enormous stage, the Olympic flame burned brightly, and dancers ran through spirited routines.
The atmosphere in the evening was festive, though the audience, largely Chinese, remained silent when Korean performers shouted "Daehan Minguk," a patriotic term for Korea.
"I didn't know there were so many Chinese studying and working in Korea," says Chang Sung Eun, an office worker. "They looked quite serious and fierce. It wasn't a really pleasant scene. They were cheering, but it was much more than that. They were showing off their power."
Next stop: North Korea
Late yesterday, the torch arrived at the truce village of Panmunjom, on the line between North and South Korea. Tens of thousands of North Koreans were expected Monday to line the streets of Pyongyang, cheering the torch at every step of the way through the North Korean capital, the first time it has ever been seen there.
The country's official Korean Central News Agency, defending China's position on Tibet, has said North Korea guarantees "no demonstrations."