05.01.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Korean Peninsula: Christmas “Tree of Discord”

56546We have not once described the process of inter-Korean relations and rather complicated and very volatile. The course of President Lee Myung-bak led to a very serious aggravation of the relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The present President Park Geun-hye has inherited the problem and has to solve it within the conservative trend framework. Though formally her approach is marked by greater constructiveness the situation continues to fluctuate swinging to one or other side. This can be demonstrated by a series of events related to the so-called “Christmas tree”.

The metallic cone-shaped construction in form of a Christmas tree was elevating on the top of the 155-meter high Egibon hill in the city of Kimpho, Kyonggi-do province. It was positioned near the inter-Korean border (so that it could be seen well from the North Korean territory) and served as one of the sources of tension between the South and the North, serving the “arms of psychological war”. On the occasion of the New Year and Christmas the construction was decorated by electric garlands as a Christmas tree and positioned as a chance to look at the holiday for those “whom the bloody atheistic regime has deprived of the Holy Christmas”.

The annual ceremony of lighting up “the Christmas tree” was conducted till 2004 when the RK and the DPRK agreed to stop propaganda actions on both sides of the border; but in 2010, after drowning of the patrol corvette “Chkhonan” the tradition was renewed by the South. However, in December 2011, when the DPRK was mourning the death of Kim Chen Ir the Christmas tree was not lighted, nor was it done in 2013, following direct threats from Pyongyang.

In autumn of 2014 it was decided to disassemble “the Christmas tree”. According to a representative of the Ministry of Defence of the RK disassembly of the construction was planned as far as in the last year, when it was established that it was dilapidated and dangerous. Then, disassembly was postponed due to lack of funding, but as soon as the funding arrived everything was immediately disassembled.

However, on December 2 the Ministry of Defence of the RK stated that it had satisfied the request of the Christian Council of Korea and allowed to erect a new “Christmas tree” at the same place. It was planned that the new “tree” would be a little shorter – 9 meters instead of 18 (not significant, taken into consideration the height of the hill) and would be lighted during two weeks, starting from December 23. The country’s Ministry of Defence explained its decision by the fact that it “will provide for conducting religious activities”, but according to the Japanese agency Kyōdō Tsūshinsha, disassembly of the old construction caused a contradictory reaction in South Korea: the country’s President Park Geun-hye (a Catholic) felt indignant due to the disappearance of the iron “Christmas tree” and wished to know who had ordered it.

The DPRK’ s reaction was not long awaited. On December 5, a representative of the Council of Believers of the DPRK called the intention to install the new “Christmas tree” an insult. It was even specially emphasized that the Christian Council of Korea, “indifferent to the relations between the North and the South and to the fate of the Korean nation, has turned into a dummy religious organisation loyal to the puppet regime”. The northerners accused the southerners of an attempt to use religion for aggravating the conflict and hostility between the two Koreas. “This is an act of madness, and therefore inadmissible for us”, the statement said.

This was not the only statement. A whole number of organisations in the DPRK announced that erection and lighting of the tower might entail unwanted consequences, the responsibility for which would be born by the Christian Council of Korea. A typical example of such statement is the statement of the command of the nearby front: “Our army does not interfere in where and what the South Korean puppets are engaged at their own territory. But if they make a farce of psychological war aimed at confrontation exactly in the area of military demarcation line, and before the eyes of our military servicemen of the front army forces, we shall not be silent, we shall not allow it. “The ceremony of the work of the constructions on Egi mountain”, originated from the dirty plot of Park Geun-hye’s company to aggravate the confrontation with our compatriots is an unbearable insult and humiliation of our front armed forces warriors and a direct declaration of war”.

The representative of the DPRK army command reminded that the military servicemen of the western part of the front “have already demonstrated in practice their readiness to resist the launching of balloons with provocative leaflets from the South Korean side”. “That is why Seoul should pay attention to the fact that the army and the population of the People’s Republic started taking strict counter-measures against provocateurs”.

On December 18, 2014, the Christian Council of Korea refused from its plans to install the “Christmas tree”. However, as noted by the media, local residents opposed to the Church officials’ plans to install it as they considered those plans provocative. Similar to the incident with the leaflets, the population did not wish to draw the fire upon them, becoming the hostages of a possible conflict. We recall that in autumn of 2014 there occurred a fight between the activists who attempted to fly to the DPRK balloons with leaflets, and the local residents. The local residents brought tractors blocking the entrance for the activists and threw eggs at the activists’ buses demanding from them to leave the territory of the city .

However, it looks like the conservatives are little worried about local opinion, as the final decision has not yet been made and the DPRK’s protests against installation of the “Christmas tree” are still going on. But one thing is pleasing: at the moment when I am writing these lines the Catholic Christmas passed without any incidents both from the north and the south side. I would like to hope that good sense prevails and the “Christmas tree of discord” will cease to be a provocative factor increasing the possibility of tension at the inter-Korean border.

Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.