Free of protest, Olympic torch relay begins North Korea leg

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AP Photo TOK802, TOK807, TOK806

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- Assured of a trip free of anti-Chinese protests, the Olympic torch made its first-ever relay run Monday in authoritarian North Korea.

An attentive and peaceful crowd of thousands watched the start of the relay in Pyongyang, some waving Chinese flags, footage from broadcaster APTN showed. The event was presided over by the head of the country's rubber-stamp parliament, Kim Yong Nam, who often acts as a ceremonial state leader.

The torch relay has been a lightning rod for anti-China demonstrations. At other stops, such as in London and San Francisco protesters have focused their ire on Beijing's recent crackdown on anti-government riots in Tibet.

But communist North Korea, an ally of neighbor China, has been critical of disruptions of the torch relay elsewhere and has supported Beijing in its crackdown against violent protests in Tibet.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was not seen at the event but was "paying great interest to the success of the Olympic torch relay," said Pak Hak Son, chairman of the North's Olympic committee, according to a report by Japan's Kyodo News agency from Pyongyang.

North Korea is one of the world's most tightly controlled countries, where citizens are not allowed to travel freely and civil rights are restricted by the iron-fisted regime.

"We express our basic position that while some impure forces have opposed China's hosting of the event and have been disruptive, we believe that constitutes a challenge to the Olympic idea," Pak said, according to Kyodo.

The relay began from beneath the large sculpted flame that tops the obelisk of the Juche Tower, which commemorates the national ideology of "self-reliance" created by the country's late founding President Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il.

At the start of the run, Kim Yong Nam passed the torch to Pak Du Ik, who played on North Korea's 1966 World Cup soccer team that made a historic trip to the quarterfinals. As he began the 12-mile route through Pyongyang, thousands more cheering people lined city streets waving pink paper flowers and small flags with the Beijing Olympics logo and chanting "Welcome! Welcome!"

"I, as the first torch runner, will keep this beautiful memory deep in my heart forever," former athlete Pak said.

Other torch bearers were also seen running through a Pyongyang street, escorted by several people in training suits and some vehicles and motorcycles, but there was notably lighter security than seen on other torch relay stops. Some people along the streets held banners reading "North Korea-China Friendship."

APTN footage showed middle-aged women in traditional Korean dresses dancing and beating drums in a joyful mood in a Pyongyang plaza and little girls holding red balloons and bouquets of flowers.

The relay finished after about five hours at Kim Il Sung Stadium, where female marathoner Chong Song Ok used the torch to kindle an Olympic cauldron, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported from Pyongyang.

The stadium was filled with tens of thousands of people, some holding banners reading, "Cheer for Beijing, Cheer for Pyongyang, Cheer for the Olympic Games," Xinhua said.

The United Nations children's agency UNICEF had been asked to participate in the North Korean leg of the relay but withdrew in March, saying it wasn't sure the event would help its mission of raising awareness of conditions for children.

North Korea's children are often the most at risk of starvation in the regular food shortages that plague the country. The problem is expected to be more severe this year due to poor harvests caused by massive floods last summer that wiped out large swaths of the country's most productive farmland.

The torch arrived earlier Monday in North Korea by plane from rival South Korea, where China's treatment of North Korean refugees sparked protests against the relay.

On Sunday, clashes broke out in Seoul near the relay's start between a group of 500 Chinese students and about 50 demonstrators criticizing Beijing's policies. The students threw stones and water bottles as some 2,500 police tried to keep the two sides apart.

A student was arrested for allegedly throwing rocks, police said.