Police on Full Alert as Pope's Visit Approaches

Security preparations went into overdrive on Tuesday, two days before Pope Francis arrives in Korea. Security will be the tightest since Seoul hosted the G20 Summit in 2010.

Mock security drills were held along the pontiff's intended travel route. In downtown Seoul, hundreds of police and intelligence officers of the 31 precincts across the capital gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza to rehearse their carefully planned maneuvers for an emergency.

The pope is only staying in Korea for 100 hours, but paradoxically his famously low-key approach requires more elaborate preparations.

A police officer said, "The fact that the pope doesn't like huge security details has placed quite a burden on us. It's extremely rare for a senior dignitary not to use an armored vehicle and bullet-proof vest in an open area filled with high-rise buildings."

The car the pope will be using during his visit is a compact passenger car with no armor.

Plainclothes police officers attend a mock security drill in Gwanghwamun, Seoul on Tuesday, ahead of Pope Francis visit on Saturday. Plainclothes police officers attend a mock security drill in Gwanghwamun, Seoul on Tuesday, ahead of Pope Francis' visit on Saturday.

Another source of concern for police is that Francis enjoys pressing the flesh. He will spend around three hours meeting the public on the day of his mass, which includes a car parade. The officer said, "There has never been an instance where a major foreign dignitary spent so much time outdoors."

Police have ensured that the altar in downtown Seoul set up for the mass offers maximum protection for the pontiff. Gwanghwamun Plaza has been cordoned off with steel barriers to control the flow of people entering the plaza. There is only one entrance where metal detectors and police stand guard. Anyone entering the plaza has to be cleared in a thorough sweep.

People who are not on the guest list or lack entry passes will be barred, while attendees of the mass who need to go to the restroom must turn in their entry passes and then pick them up on their way back inside the corral.

Security at Gwanghwamun Plaza, where the pope will hold the mass, is being divided by the city's 31 precincts with each guarding their own zones. "Our whole focus now is on the pope's safety," one officer said.

Background checks of the 170,000 congregants at the mass were completed a month ago. An official at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea said, "We received applications in April and May and completed the background checks."

Those who passed the screening process were given necklace-type ID cards with their own barcodes, but they still need to undergo a thorough security check before entering the plaza on the day of the mass.

Police have already begun rerouting some traffic that passes by the plaza. All traffic access will be closed from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday when the mass is held.

englishnews@chosun.com / Aug. 13, 2014 13:22 KST