SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Anti-Pyongyang activists on Wednesday ripped photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the latest protests in Seoul against South Korea's outreach to North Korea over next month's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Despite drawing verbal outbursts from North Korea, the protests have yet to meaningfully affect preparations for the games, which South Korean President Moon Jae-in views as an opportunity to improve relations after tensions over the North's nuclear program.
A 15-member North Korean women's ice hockey team consisting of 12 players, a coach and support staff was scheduled to arrive in South Korea on Thursday to begin training with South Korean athletes for a unified team that will compete at the Olympics.
South Korea has sent a group of officials to North Korea to inspect preparations for a joint cultural event at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain and a practice session for the countries' non-Olympic skiers at the North's Masik ski resort the Koreas plan to hold before the start of the Olympics. The rivals have also agreed to jointly march under a "unification" flag during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony and for a North Korean art troupe to perform in Seoul and Gangneung, which will host the skating, hockey and curling events.
Still, Wednesday's protest at Seoul's National Assembly, led by North Korea-born activist Park Sang-hak, may trigger an angry response from the North, which is extremely sensitive to what it sees as insults to its supreme leadership.
"This is the uniform will of the 32,000 North Korean defectors who have put their lives on the line in their journey to South Korea," Park shouted as he and other activists ripped three photos of Kim and threw the pieces into the air in protest of what they called the "Pyongyang Olympics."
Park, who is hated in the North over his yearslong campaign of flying balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border, was joined by eight other activists.
North Korea's state media lashed out after a different group of South Korean conservatives burned Kim's photo and a North Korean flag in downtown Seoul on Monday while a North Korean delegation visited to prepare for performances by the art troupe. The North called the protesters "human scum" and demanded Seoul apologize, "sternly punish" those involved and prevent such acts from happening.
Asked about the protests and the North Korean response, Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman of Seoul's Unification Ministry, called for national unity to ensure the successful hosting of the Olympics.
"North Korea is an Olympic participant so there's a need to properly treat them as such," he said. "The South and North must sincerely fulfill the agreements between them and also their agreements with the International Olympic Committee."
North Korea agreed earlier this month to send a delegation to the Olympics, in the first formal talks between the rivals in about two years. Its delegation at the Feb. 9-25 games is to include officials, athletes, a cheering group, journalists, an art troupe and the taekwondo demonstration team.
The reconciliation mood between the Koreas began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year's speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Olympics. While many other South Koreans have welcomed the North's participation as an opportunity to ease tension, there are also skeptics who view Kim's overture as an attempt to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions against the North and buy time to further advance his nuclear weapons program.
Last year, North Korea carried out its sixth and biggest nuclear test and test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles and has shown no willingness to give up its ambitions. On Tuesday, the North newly designated Feb. 8 as a national holiday honoring the founding of its army, which raised the possibility that it will hold a large military parade, potentially featuring its newest long-range missiles that could potentially target the U.S. mainland, on the eve of the Olympics.