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(3rd LD) S. Korea lights up Christmas tree on border with N. Korea amid tension

All Headlines 18:07 December 21, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES in paras 1-6 with light-up ceremony held; CHANGES headline, dateline)

SEOUL/GIMPO, Dec. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea lit up a giant Christmas tree on top of a border hill near North Korea Tuesday amid concern that Pyongyang might attempt to strike down the glowing structure that it denounces as psychological warfare against the isolated nation.

The lighting ceremony came amid heightened military tensions between the two Koreas and a day after the South carried out a live-fire artillery exercise from a border island devastated by North Korea in a deadly artillery shelling that killed four people.

About 100,000 colorful light bulbs were lit on the tree-shaped, 30-meter-high steel tower at Aegibong peak, which is 165 meters above sea level, on the western border with North Korea in a ceremony organized by the Seoul-based Full Gospel Church and attended by about 400 people.

It had been an annual ritual for South Korea to light up the Aegibong Christmas tree before it was suspended in 2003 under a reconciliation agreement with the North to end border propaganda activity.

The luminous structure served as a symbol of the prosperous South in contrast to the destitute North, which Pyongyang was apparently concerned would weaken the regime's ideological control of the hunger-stricken people.

The Aegibong peak is just across a border river that separates the two Koreas. A glowing Christmas tree at the peak can be seen with naked eyes from as far as the major North Korean border city of Kaesong, officials said.

South Korea has recently decided to resume the lighting ritual following a series of North Korean provocations, such as the March sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors, and last month's deadly shelling of the South's Yeonpyeong Island that left two marines and two civilians dead.

Since March's ship sinking, South Korea has said it would resume propaganda warfare against the North. The communist nation has reacted angrily to the move, saying it would strike loudspeakers and all border propaganda facilities.

Officials are concerned that the Aegibong structure could become a target, though the North did not react to Monday's live-fire artillery drill from Yeonpyeong Island despite its earlier threat to strike back at the South if the exercise goes ahead.

On Monday, the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned the South against resuming propaganda activity, saying it could serve as the starting point of a full-scale war.

South Korea's military has been on alert for a possible North Korean attack on the Aegibong tower, and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin warned the North against provocations.

"There is always a possibility" of North Korean provocations, Kim told lawmakers. "We will hand a daring punishment so as to remove the source of artillery fire" if the North attempts to strike the Christmas tree, he said.

In a report to parliament, the defense ministry said the military has strengthened preparedness at the Aegibong peak. "Marines are maintaining a readiness to respond at any time in case of enemy provocations and ensure the safety of those attending the lighting ceremony," it said.

An official at the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters that the military is maintaining the highest level of alertness on border islands, the Aegibong peak and other front-line areas.

"On the eve of the lighting, more troops from a border North Korean military unit came out for patrol than usual," a military official said on condition of anonymity. "We're also strengthening preparedness."


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