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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 14:18 GMT
S Korean police flex World Cup muscles
South Korean special police force perform a martial art drill in front of Seoul World Cup Stadium
Police want to reassure the world they are ready
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By Caroline Gluck
BBC Seoul Correspondent

Riot police descend on the grounds of Seoul's newly-built World Cup stadium to break up hundreds of hooligans threatening to disrupt a match.

A helicopters hovers over the World Cup stadium as special commandos prepare to leap into action against a possible terrorist threat.

South Korea's police have a tough, no-nonsense image

This is all for show - a display of strength put on for the television cameras.

Thousands of South Korean police are trying to demonstrate to the public their ability to deal with hooliganism and potential terrorist threats during the football World Cup, co-hosted with Japan.

The police have undergone special training for months, ready for the tournament's start in May.

"The police special-forces team has completed preparations to make the 2002 World Cup the safest ever," says Lee Wang Min, head of the Korean police special forces.

"We've been practising in live training to protect not only the football stadiums but likely places where tourists will be staying."

Angry journalists

In real life South Korea's police have a tough, no-nonsense approach. During the recent visit by US President George W Bush, television bulletins showed commandos abseiling down the side of the skyscraper offices of the American Chamber of Commerce to evict radical students staging a sit-in.

South Korean special police force perform a martial art drill in front of Seoul World Cup Stadium
The police have been training for months
Others were filmed scuffling with demonstrators, and on one occasion beating a television reporter from the MBC news network.

Journalists have accused the police of over-reacting and news reporter Park Jae-hun says they are calling for a public apology.

"In a democratic society like South Korea, protestors have a right to demonstrate," he says. "It's their fundamental right.

"But the police are being paranoid when there's a world-class event. They only want people to see the good side of Korea.

"I don't think the police should try to muzzle these protests by being violent and cracking down."

Healthy sign?

Back at Seoul football stadium, there is zero tolerance for would-be troublemakers.

Hur Jong-chul, superintendent for the World Cup task force, promises security for the football event will be tight, but journalists will be unimpeded in their work.

"In the future, we will try to deploy specially-trained officers along with ordinary riot police. So, when journalists come to film protests they can do their work without any interference and they do not get hurt again," he says.

Accusations of heavy-handedness persist but the fact that noisy protests against President Bush's visit were allowed to take place at all is seen as a measure of the extent to which democracy has flourished in South Korea.

The protests may have been embarrassing for the government - but they also showed that South Koreans are freer to express their views now than at possibly any time in the country's turbulent history.

See also:

24 Jan 02 | Business
Soccer fans face mammoth bills
27 Nov 01 | World Cup 2002
Korea's World Cup venues
27 Nov 01 | World Cup 2002
Japan's World Cup venues
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