North Korea sees war games and Christmas tree as it gazes across tense border

Some visitors to South Korea's Aegibong Peak, where a Christmas tree stands 100 feet tall, are skeptical it sends a message of peace. North Korea has denounced the war games and the tree as 'provocations.'

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
South Korean Christians sing a hymn Tuesday in front of a Christmas tree on top of the Aegibong Peak Observatory just south of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.

A freezing winter wind whips across this 500-ft.-high promontory overlooking barren North Korean countryside and a cluster of dull gray structures bereft of any sign of life.

The picture of desolation across the Han River as it flows into the Yellow Sea belies the rhetoric from both Koreas even as South Korea's forces stage brief but powerful exercises well south of the North-South line.

Visitors to the peak, in a South Korean Marine base bristling with tanks and artillery pieces, pause to peer through binoculars at the North Korean village nearly two miles away. The main attraction of the peak, however, is a 100-ft.-tall tower trimmed with hundreds of lights, topped by a crucifix.

It’s a toss-up as to which is more infuriating to the North Koreans – the Christmas tree, which had not been lit for the past six holiday seasons in deference to North Korean protests, or the war games about 20 miles southeast of here. North Koreans, assuming they are lurking somewhere in the hills rolling into the distance, can see the tree as it twinkles through the night while the exercises are well out of sight and sound of North Korean forces.

North Korea has denounced both the tree and the war games as “provocations” for which the South will be “punished,” but those words are relatively mild. The North Korean propaganda machine again slipped into high gear Thursday with a threat of a “holy war of justice” – complete with “nuclear deterrent.”

Those words, attributed by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency to Defense Minister Kim Young-chun, came with the qualifier that the war would begin only when needed “to cope with the enemies' actions deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war."

In other words, there’s no reason to fear a North Korean blitzkrieg in the near future, despite the prospect of incidents such as that on Nov. 23, when North Korean artillery killed two marines and two civilians on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.

Some visitors to this obscure promontory, open to visitors but well off the usual tourist route, believe the lighting of the Christmas tree by the evangelical Full Gospel Church increases the danger of a shock attack that displays of massive military might can do little to deter.

“I don’t think it’s a symbol of peace,” says the Rev. Lee Jeuk, who views himself as “an activist” pastor, as he trudges up the hill. “It will provoke North Korea.”

The decision to switch on the tree lights stands as a symbol, if not of peace, at least of President Lee Myung-bak’s determination to appear tough in the face of mounting North Korean threats since the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

President Lee, on a rare visit to another observation post, this one on the eastern side of the peninsula, said he had no idea whether the North Koreans would attack on the eastern or western side, but he said that the South could stop “provocative acts through strong unity” – and “a powerful response.”

Certainly the war games 20 miles from here were a display of military might. Kwan Ki-hun, Defense Ministry spokesman, insists they'd been scheduled well before the latest incident and denies they were “a show of force.”

The fact that they were the largest this year – not “the largest ever” as widely reported – suggests Lee wanted a full-scale display to prove to domestic critics how tough he is. Upwards of 800 troops joined in as tanks, cannon, helicopters, and fixed-wing F15 fighters pummeled the landscape, set aside for years for war games.

“It’s not related to North Korea,” says Mr. Kwan, not very convincingly. “It’s an annual event.”

While no ordinary South Koreans, aside from those invited as spectators, could watch the exercises, the Christmas tree is another matter.

The lighting and maintenance of the tree is a project of the Full Gospel Church, an evangelical faith that draws well over 10,000 people to services that go on every hour or two each Sunday in the imposing central church near South Korea’s National Assembly building in Seoul. A church choir sang as the lights were turned on Tuesday night, and the image was on the front pages of Korean newspapers along with photographs of military exercises.

People in the nearby town of Kunhar, a dusty collection of small shops and apartment buildings about 40 miles west of Seoul, were not exactly critical of the tree, but wary of how North Korea may respond.

The concern is that the North will see it in the same light as propaganda blasts on megaloudspeakers – and eventually make good on threats to open fire at the sources of the “provocations.” Some of the shots, people say, will inevitably fall on civilian homes and farms scattered in the hills nearby.

“This is a very dangerous area,” says Gil Chang-moon, who owns a garden growing exotic herbs. “They can attack us any time.” He does not expect another outburst from North Korea right away but repeated the widespread view, “No one knows what they will do.”

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