SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Conservative South Korean activists burned a large photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as the head of the North's extremely popular girl band passed them Monday during a visit to Seoul amid a flurry of cooperation agreements between the rivals ahead of next month's Winter Olympics in the South.
Hyon Song Wol, a North Korean celebrity who heads Kim's hand-picked Moranbong Band, began a two-day visit on Sunday, triggering media frenzy in South Korea about Hyon, who is also in charge of the North's artistic performances during the Olympics.
It has been rare for such a high-profile North Korean to travel to South Korea in recent years as bilateral ties deteriorated over North Korea's nuclear program before the nations abruptly began seeking to improve relations this month ahead of the Feb. 9-25 Olympics.
After her visits to potential venues for North Korean performances in an eastern city, Hyon arrived back Monday at the Seoul railway station where she saw about 150 to 200 activists protesting her visit and recent inter-Korean rapprochement deals.
Hyon saw the activists but did not react. After she left the area, the demonstrators used a blowtorch to burn Kim's photo, a North Korean flag and a "unification flag" that athletes of the rival Koreas plan to carry together during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Police used fire extinguishers to put out the fire, but the activists later stamped on Kim's photo and the flags and burned them.
Police plan to investigate the protesters, according to Yonhap news agency. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said they couldn't immediately confirm the report.
Hyon's visit made her the subject of intense South Korean media attention, with photographers following her every move and TV stations aggressively reporting about not only her career and band but also her fox-fur muffler, boots and facial expressions.
The band, with young women in short skirts and high heels dancing and singing odes to Kim, has drawn wide attention even though little information about it is available to outsiders. South Korean media say Hyon is an army colonel and is close to Kim.
South Korea's liberal government led by President Moon Jae-in sees North Korea's participation in the games — both in sporting events and cultural exchanges — as a way to calm tensions caused by the North's recent nuclear and missile tests and war of words with the United States.
"We need wisdom and efforts to keep alive the chances for dialogue we've pulled off miraculously after the Pyeongchang Olympics," Moon said.
"We must get South-North Korean talks developed into talks between North Korea and the United States ... so that we can resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully," Moon said in a meeting with aides, according to his office.
Under a deal brokered by the International Olympic Committee, the two Koreas will field their first unified Olympic team, in women's hockey, and have their athletes march together under the joint flag depicting their peninsula during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony. North Korea is to send a total of 22 athletes to the games after they were granted exceptional entries by the IOC.
The deals on a unified hockey team and the use of the joint flag have caused a heated debate in South Korea, reflecting changes in public views toward North Korea in recent years. A survey showed a majority of South Korean oppose the joint hockey team, which critics say will deprive South Korean players of due playing time.
South Korea's main conservative opposition party complained over what it called excessive security for Hyon. "The Moon government is offering gracious hospitality to a North Korean army colonel as if she's a queen. ... Did they forget North Korea had until recently been threatening to turn South Korea into a sea of fire with its nuclear weapons and missiles?" a party statement said.
The current mood of reconciliation between the Koreas began after North Korean leader Kim expressed his willingness to improve ties and send a delegation to the Olympics during his annual New Year's address. Outside critics have dismissed Kim's overture as a tactic to use improved ties with Seoul to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions against North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Hyon's Moranbong Band will not visit South Korea during the games, but she will head a little-known 140-member art troupe that is to perform twice. The art troupe, which comprises orchestra members, singers and dancers, is part of North Korea's Olympic delegation that also includes a 230-member cheering group, journalists and a taekwondo demonstration team.
Hyon was traveling with six other North Koreans. They inspected possible venues in the eastern city of Gangneung, where some Olympic events are scheduled to take place, on Sunday and in Seoul on Monday.