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South Korea's mixed messages to North: anger, and a Christmas tree

South Koreans erected a huge Christmas tree that can reportedly be seen from the North's side of the demilitarized zone. But a sense of brotherhood has been sharply strained by the North's recent attack.

By Bryan KayContributor / December 21, 2010

South Korean Christians sing a hymn in front of a Christmas tree on top of the Aegibong Peak Observatory just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Gimpo, west of Seoul on Dec. 21.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

Christmas may be the last thing on the minds of many North Koreans this year, but that didn’t stop their neighbors to the south on Tuesday from sending a message designed to raise their spirits.

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The method of delivery was a giant, brightly lit Christmas tree, reportedly visible from Kaesong, the border city on the northern side of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South. The tree serves a propaganda role, reminding of repression and the lack of religious freedom in the North. Yet even in the tumult of plummeting North-South relations, it may also serve as a beacon of continuing Korean brotherhood.

That sense of brotherhood may account for something that observers say has been noticeably absent since North Korean forces unleashed an artillery barrage onto the villagers of Yeonpyeong Island: the kind of mass protests for which South Korea has become known.

Over the past decade, the US was frequently the target. The streets filled with protesters in 2002 after two US soldiers ran over and killed two South Korean schoolgirls. Two years ago, Koreans vented their fury again when imports of US beef were controversially resumed.

But the recent attack failed to yield an outpouring of comparable magnitude, despite a year of military confrontations and casualties – a contrast that may speak to the ties that bind across the border.

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“It is really ridiculous. Forty-six sailors were killed on the [sinking of the South Korean naval vessel] Cheonan in March and this time two soldiers and two civilians have been killed by the bombardment,” says Shin Woong-jae, a photographer from Seoul. “Why isn’t there any protest against North Korea?”

Politics, it seems, looms large. Like elsewhere in the world, the streets, says award-winning Korean War historian Andrew Salmon, are “the province of the left.” But there are also blood ties; Koreans on either side of the divided peninsula seeing themselves as one. For the 10 years before current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took power, continues Mr. Salmon, there was a left-leaning government that extended an olive branch north.

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