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Stick-Wielding N. Koreans Attack Activists

Swinging starts at sports venue in South as group finishes declarations on human rights abuses.

August 25, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — An in-your-face brawl between North and South Koreans erupted Sunday during the World University Games in Taegu at a demonstration by human rights activists denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Witnesses said that five members of the North Korean delegation rushed a dozen or so activists gathered outside a press center, grabbed sticks that had been used for displaying anti-Kim banners, and started swinging. More than 100 riot police rushed to the scene. Five people were lightly injured, including Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who is a well-known agitator against the North Korean regime.

"I was standing on crutches. I couldn't even lift a crutch to fight back or I would have lost my balance," said Vollertsen, who had been hurt two days earlier in a scuffle with South Korean police.

The incident was extremely unusual because North Koreans who attend sporting and cultural events in the South are closely monitored by delegation members to prevent unruliness or defections. It could raise tensions between North and South Korea and complicate six-party talks on the North's nuclear programs, due to start Wednesday in Beijing.

South Korean authorities said the North Koreans were journalists, but activists said some appeared to be bodyguards or security agents.

"They seemed like they were trained in martial arts. They went right through the riot police. They were small but very fast," said Douglas Shin, a Korean American pastor from Artesia who was one of the organizers of the demonstration.

At the time, the activists had just finished reading statements to the press about human rights abuses in North Korea. They held up photographs of emaciated North Korean children and a large banner that read, "Down with Kim Jong Il: Rescue our North Korean brethren."

"We were holding up placards that had sticks. They took them and started to attack us with the sticks. We were absolutely shocked," said activist Kang Hye Won, whose husband is a photographer now imprisoned in China on charges of helping North Korean defectors.

Police told the South Korean press that they did not plan to file charges against any of the parties involved. Soon after the fight, the head of the North Korean delegation, Jeon Kuk Man, held a news conference in Taegu demanding that the South Korean government "take full responsibility and immediately punish the people responsible" for the affront to Kim. He threatened to withdraw from the university games.

More than 500 people, including cheerleaders, make up the North Korean delegation to the 11-day tournament, which draws young athletes from more than 170 nations. Pyongyang had earlier threatened to boycott the games because of an Aug. 15 demonstration at which protesters burned a North Korean flag and effigy of Kim. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun issued an apology for the incident and the threat was dropped.

Since the June 2000 summit between then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il, North Koreans have participated in dozens of events across the border, although the estranged Koreas remain technically in a state of war.


Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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