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DMZ to get massive Christmas lights display after all

In a 2010 file photo, South Korean Christians sing a Christmas song in front of a 100-foot-tall steel Christmas tree, visible to North Koreans living near the DMZ, at the western mountain peak known as Aegibong in Gimpo, South Korea.

SEOUL — It’s going to be a bright holiday in the Demilitarized Zone after all.

South Korea Ministry of National Defense officials said Thursday that a Presbyterian church in Seoul will be allowed to plug in a massive light display this weekend on a hilltop tower near the DMZ.

Another group, the Military Evangelical Association of Korea, earlier sought approval to light three giant towers in the shape of Christmas trees at different points about two miles south of the North Korean border. That request was withdrawn after South Koreans living near the tense border protested, saying they were afraid the North might fire in the direction of the lights.

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Officials have said the lone display on Aegibong Hill, to be lit up Saturday evening, still will be 100 feet tall and involve 100,000 lights, likely making it visible as far away as Kaesong, one of the communist North’s most populated border cities.

An MND official said the decision was based on allowing freedom of religion.

“Last time, the religious organization voluntarily decided they wouldn’t do it, so we just confirmed it,” he said. “This time, the other religious group called for it, and we granted permission.”

Asked if officials worry that the display might prompt a military response from the North, the MND official said, “We are ever-ready for North Korean provocations.”

The lighting of a Christmas tree tower near the DMZ was an annual event for years until 2004, when the practice was suspended as part of an agreement between the two Koreas not to spread propaganda near the border during a period of relative calm in relations.

However, after the North sank a naval ship and shelled a border island — attacks that left 50 South Koreans dead in 2010 — the South gave the go-ahead for the display to resume.

In 2011, the South Korean government approved plans for three such displays near the DMZ.

A North Korean state-run Web site called those planned displays a form of “psychological warfare” and warned there would be “unexpected consequences” if the coalition of South Christian groups went ahead with the tree lightings.

The displays were ultimately canceled in consideration of North Korea’s official period of mourning in the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il last December.

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