In South Korea, a conservative Christian organization received permission from the Defense Ministry to construct a new Christmas tree shaped tower near the North Korean border.
The Christian Council of Korea is planning to erect a nine meter tall Christmas tree tower on a high peak, three kilometers from the border and near a North Korean town. The tree is to be topped with a giant cross and illuminated with decorative lights during the Christmas season, from December 23 until January 6.
On Tuesday, South Korean Defense Ministry Spokesman Kim Min-seok announced that the project will proceed.
He said the Ministry of Defense has approved the request, considering the purpose of the lighting ceremony and the fact that freedom of religious activities is guaranteed.
This is actually a replacement tower for an aging, similar structure that was dismantled in October because of safety concerns. North Korea had complained that the older structure was an act of propaganda warfare and warned against any attempt to rebuild the tower.
The Christian Council of Korea declined to talk to VOA about this matter, but Kim Seung-eun, a Christian minister with Caleb Mission, said the group is merely practicing freedom of religion.
He said some politicians and people say that this activity stimulates North Korea and creates tension, but he would ask the question the other way. He adds South Korea must be a country that guarantees freedom of religion as the Ministry of Defense has said, and North Korea also needs to accept this.
Religious activities in North Korea are restricted to officially recognized groups linked to the government. Authorities there have jailed missionaries for trying to proselytize.
In South Korea, surveys indicate about 29% of the population identifies as Christian, 23% as Buddhist, and 46% report no religious affiliation at all.
South Korea has cited freedom of speech and religion to justify allowing activists to send balloons carrying religious and political messages into the North. A recent launch provoked a military exchange of gunfire at the border and angered North Korean leaders to the point where they canceled high-level talks aimed at easing military tensions.
Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group, is concerned that at the very least South Korea’s support for this Christmas tree near the border will make it more difficult to persuade the North to enter into talks about ending its nuclear program and improving its human rights situation.
“If you are looking for some cooperative progress and looking for ways to cooperate with North Korea on other issues, this just gives them a reason to be uncooperative. So you don’t get better off by this. I don’t see how you get better off necessarily,” said Pinkston.
Since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice and not a peace treaty, the border area known as the demilitarized zone has been guarded on both sides by thousands of soldiers, tanks, artillery and land mines. And in the past small provocations have led to limited clashes and casualties on both sides.