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South Korea Braces For Olympic Torch Protests

Human rights groups in South Korea say they will take to the streets this weekend to protest the arrival of the Beijing Olympic torch. The South Korean government plans to deploy thousands of police to maintain order, including elite forces to accompany the torch along a rally route that has not yet been fully publicized. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin has more.

The United States embassy in Seoul cautioned Americans residing here this week to avoid unnecessary travel on Sunday, when the Beijing olympic torch reaches the South Korean capital.

The torch run has been disrupted in other major world cities in recent weeks by protesters condemning Chinese human rights practices -- especially its forceful suppression of demonstrations in Tibet.

Two separate groups have announced formal protest plans for Sunday. They are scheduled to take place at both the start and the finish of the expected torch route through the city - details of which authorities here have not made public.

Jung Woong-ki, spokesman for a group calling itself the Tibet Peace Union, is planning an alternative rally of a "peace torch."

Jung says a violent demonstration would only weaken his group's criticism of China's use of violence. However, he says he worries there may be scuffles with Chinese students who are studying in Seoul.

Kim Kyu-ho, secretary-general of a group called Christian Accountability for Society, says his protest has two main goals.

Kim says his followers want to persuade China to stop using violence in Tibet, and to stop involuntarily returning North Korean defectors to their homeland.

At least 100,000 North Koreans are believed to be living in China, after crossing the border to flee repression and severe food shortages. Those who are discovered are sent back to North Korea to face severe punishment or execution. Many of those who are not discovered are deprived of education and basic services, or end up in abusive situations such as the sex trade.

Kay Seok represents the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in Seoul. She says the torch's stop in South Korea is a good opportunity for the government to express its concern about China's treatment of North Koreans.

"It could come in different ways," said Kay. "It could be a public speech, a statement, a letter-- even if it were behind closed doors, a quiet conversation with the Chinese-- that's fine."

On Monday, the olympic torch is scheduled to visit the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where the authoritarian regime tolerates no public protest whatsoever. In a news conference this week, North Korean officials announced the torch would be greeted by "hundreds of thousands of welcoming wavers."