During torch run, Korean tries burning himself

April 27, 2008 6:24:31 AM PDT
A North Korean defector tried to set himself on fire to halt the Olympic torch relay through Seoul, while thousands of police guarded the flame Sunday from protesters blasting China's treatment of North Korean refugees.

Hundreds of China supporters waving the Chinese flag greeted the torch, throwing rocks at anti-Beijing demonstrators. Police ran alongside the flame and rode horses and bicycles on the relay across the city, which hosted the 1988 Olympics.

The torch relay has become a lightning rod for anti-China demonstrations. At other stops, protesters have focused their ire on Beijing's recent crackdown on anti-government riots in Tibet. But in South Korea, China's treatment of North Korean defectors has taken center stage.

Thousands of North Koreans, fleeing lives of hardship in a country that restricts all civil liberties, have escaped across the loosely controlled Chinese border, rather than attempt the heavily fortified frontier with the South. Many live in hiding in China, where if caught, they are deported back home to face imprisonment in life-threatening conditions.

The man who tried to immolate himself, 45-year-old Son Jong Hoon, 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, Son poured gasoline on himself and tried to light himself on fire, but police stopped him.

At the start of the relay, a protester rushed toward the Olympic flame and tried to unfurl a banner calling for China to respect the rights of North Korean refugees. Dozens of police surrounding the torch quickly whisked him away. As it approached the city center, another North Korean defector also tried to impede the run and was arrested.

Police said a total of five people were arrested. A police official near Olympic Park said one of the five was a Chinese student who was under investigation for allegedly throwing rocks. The official requested not to be named because an investigation was under way.

--

Associated Press Writer Jae-hyun Jeong contributed to this report.