Protesters attempted to block vehicles carrying a controversial North Korean delegation to the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games as they crossed the Demilitarised Zone into South Korea on Sunday morning.
Around 100 conservative politicians and activists staged a sit-in demonstration at the Tongil Bridge, according to local broadcaster YTN, accusing the delegation’s leader of being behind a deadly 2010 attack on a South Korean warship.
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South Korean authorities deployed more than 2.500 police officers to control the protests. To avoid a clash, the motorcade took an alternative route via Jeonjin bridge, which is a military crossing, according to the Chosun Ilbo.
The opposition Korea Liberty Party accused the government of “abuse of power and an act of treason” for shielding the North Korean vehicles from the protest.
The protesters were furious that the South Korean government had permitted the North’s delegation to be headed by Kim Young-chol, head of the Workers’ Party United Front Department and the man accused by Seoul’s intelligence agency of having masterminded the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and the artillery attack on the island of Yeonpyengdo eight months later.
The delegation travelled to the South for Winter Olympics closing ceremony, which will also be attended by the US president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. Both sides have said they do not expect to meet face-to-face.
“Kim Yong-chol is our sworn enemy who took away 46 sailors’ precious lives with the sudden torpedo attack”, Chang Je-won, a politician taking part in the demonstration, told Yonhap news.
Mr Kim later ignored questions from reporters about his responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan as he entered the Walkerhill Hotel in Seoul, where the delegation will be based for their three day visit.
The South Korean government has attempted to play down Mr Kim’s involvement in the two attacks – 46 sailors died when the Cheonan was torpedoed and two soldiers and two civilians died in the subsequent artillery attack – claiming that it is difficult to confirm who was responsible for the incidents.
Seoul’s decision to turn a blind eye to the past actions of Mr Kim – who is on South Korea’s financial sanctions blacklist but is not subject to an international travel ban – has been met with scorn.
In an editorial, the Chosun Ilbo accused the government of Moon Jae-in of “spitting on the Cheonan victims’ graves” and of “ignoring any evidence directly linking Kim to the attack”.
It pointed out that Mr Kim was named in an inquiry conducted by the Defence Ministry in October 2010 as being behind the Cheonan attack, while an executive order signed by former US President Barack Obama in September 2010 imposed sanctions on Mr Kim.
“Denying that he was responsible for the attack is like saying a man who fires a gun cannot be held responsible for the bullet that kills his victim”, the editorial said.
Criticising the government for its decision to “roll out the red carpet for a butcher”, the editorial added: “This must end here. North Korea’s decision to send Kim is a deliberate provocation and shows utter disdain of the victims of its attack”.
More than 70 members of the Liberty Korea Party demonstrated outside the presidential Blue House on Friday, demanding that the government cancel its acceptance of Mr Kim’s visit.
“President Moon’s decision to accept the North’s façade of peace is a serious issue and it will go down in history as a crime eternal”, the party said in a statement.
Washington has also weighed in on the decision to permit Mr Kim to travel to the South, with a spokesperson for the State Department stating that he should “take the opportunity” to visit the Cheonan Memorial, in Pyenogtaek, which displays the wreckage of the ship.