SEOUL — Uh-oh, Christmas tree!
For the second year in a row, Christian groups plan on Dec. 23 to illuminate about 100,000 lights on a 100-foot-tall steel tower in the shape of a Christmas tree on the peak of Aegibong Hill, about 2 miles from the North Korean border, a move some fear could cause retaliation from North Korea.
South Korean officials have said the Christmas tree display, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, can likely be seen as far away as Kaesong, one of North Korea’s most populated border cities.
That does not sit well with hermit kingdom, which is officially an atheist state with reportedly only a limited number of churches with services for foreigners.
In 2010, North Korean officials warned that they would fire artillery in the direction of any activity they deemed designed to spread propaganda north of the DMZ, including the launching of leaflet-laden balloons or the South’s threatened broadcast of messages from giant speakers.
When plans were announced for last year’s tree-lighting, the North called it another form of propaganda, saying it was a “dangerous, rash act” that could lead to war.
The Aegibong tree-lighting had been an annual event through 2003, but was suspended as part of a 2004 agreement not to spread propaganda near the DMZ during a relative period of calm in relations on the peninsula.
However, in the wake of the North’s 2010 sinking of a warship and the shelling of a border island – attacks that left 50 South Koreans dead - the South gave the go-ahead for a resumption of the border tree-lighting.
Last year’s ceremony was far from the typical holiday event one might expect.
South Korean military officials said troops were on high alert at the DMZ, and dozens were reportedly encircling the ceremony site. Fire trucks and ambulances were parked nearby, and fliers were reportedly waiting on chairs explaining what to do in the case of attack.
The ceremony went off without incident, and the tree remained lit for almost three weeks without any response from the North.
In response to news that the tree would again be lit this year, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said, “The psychological warfare activities of the puppet regime have entered full swing.”
So why risk touching off a violent incident again this month with a symbol of the spirit of the Christmas season?
Tak Sejin, chairman of the Yoido Full Gospel Church’s military evangelical committee, said the goal of the tree-lighting is exactly the opposite.
“This is a lightning ceremony for peace on the Korean peninsula and national unity,” he said. “It is being held with our desire for harmony among our fellow men, and between North and South Korea.
“We are doing this with the expectation that someday … our people can become one,” he added.
Tak said the ceremony and tree – which will remain lit through Jan. 6 -- are not means of spreading propaganda, but rather ways to share the spirit of the season.
Tak said that some members of the church groups asked, “Why are we creating tension like this? Let’s not do this.”
But the decision to request government permission for tree-lighting moved forward, nonetheless.
Asked whether he feared a North Korean artillery attack on the ceremony or the tree, Tak said the North would probably issue more threats, “but I don’t think they will do anything.”
South Korean Ministry of National Defense officials tried to downplay the tree-lighting, saying it was not meant to send any messages to the people of North Korea but rather so those in the military community around Aegibong could celebrate the season.