North Korea mobilized tens of thousands of citizens on Monday to celebrate the Olympic torch relay in Pyongyang, the flame’s first visit to the authoritarian nation.
Men in their best suits and women wearing traditional high-waisted dresses waved flags and paper flowers in the capital, greeting the torch like a visiting head of state.
Unlike some other parts of the relay ahead of the Beijing Olympics, everything went off without a hitch in North Korea. Only the most loyal communist elite are allowed to live in Pyongyang, a showpiece city filled with monuments to the hard-line regime.
China is North Korea’s main ally and a key provider of aid, and the torch relay was used to herald their ties. North Korea has condemned disruptions of the torch relay elsewhere, and supported Beijing in its crackdown on violent protests in Tibet.
Leader Kim Jong Il was not seen at Monday’s event, but he was “paying great interest to the success of the Olympic torch relay,” Pak Hak Son, chairman of North Korea’s Olympic committee, said at the relay start, according to a report from Pyongyang by Japan’s Kyodo News agency.
“We express our basic position that while some impure forces have opposed China’s hosting of the event and have been disruptive, we believe that constitutes a challenge to the Olympic idea,” Pak said.
The torch began its run from beneath the giant red stained-glass flame that tops the 558-foot-tall obelisk of the Juche Tower, which commemorates the national ideology of “self-reliance” created by the late founding President Kim Il Sung, father of Kim Jong Il.
An attentive and peaceful crowd watched the start of the relay, some waving Chinese and Olympic flags, APTN footage showed. The ceremony was presided over by the head of Parliament, Kim Yong Nam.
Kim passed the flame to Pak Du Ik, a former soccer star who played on North Korea’s 1966 World Cup soccer team.
As the 12-mile relay wound through Pyongyang, thousands of cheering people lined the streets waving pink paper flowers and small flags with the Beijing Olympics logo and chanting “Welcome! Welcome!”
Middle-aged women in traditional dresses danced and beat drums in one square, while young girls held red balloons and bouquets of flowers, APTN footage showed.
Security was far lighter than in most other cities visited by the torch, although the flame was followed by several Chinese in blue tracksuits along with vehicles and motorcycles.
The relay ended after about five hours at Kim Il Sung Stadium, where female marathoner Chong Song Ok used the torch to light an Olympic cauldron, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The stadium was filled with tens of thousands of people, some holding banners reading, “Cheer for Beijing, Cheer for Pyongyang, Cheer for the Olympic Games,” Xinhua said.
China and North Korea “are like brothers,” said Li Binghua, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, according to Kyodo. “We are very moved that tens of thousands turned out.”
The Olympic flame arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, late Monday for the final international leg of the relay before the torch goes to China. Vietnamese authorities have given few details, including the torch’s route through the city, apparently for security reasons.