Border tree marks propaganda war

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South Korean Christians sing a Christmas song in front of a 100-foot-tall steel Christmas tree on the border with the North (AP)

South Koreans have lit a massive steel Christmas tree overlooking the world’s most heavily armed border as troops stood guard and a choir sang carols, in a defiant message to atheist North Korea.

The lighting of the tree after a seven-year hiatus marked a pointed return to a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda.

The provocative ceremony – which needed government permission – was also a sign that President Lee Myung-bak’s administration is serious about countering the North’s aggression with measures of its own in the wake of an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans last month.

While the North has made some conciliatory gestures in recent days – indicating to a visiting US governor that it might allow international inspections of its nuclear programmes – Seoul appears unmoved.

Pyongyang has used a combination of aggression and reconciliation before to extract concessions from the international community and the resurrection of the tree lighting at Aegibong is a signal that the South will play hardball until it sees real change from the North.

Earlier, a South Korean destroyer prowled the sea and fighter jets tore across the sky in preparation for possible North Korean attacks a day after Seoul held a round of artillery drills from a front-line island.

After warning of deadly retaliation, North Korea said it would not deign to fight back and indicated to visiting New Mexico governor Bill Richardson that it was prepared to consider ways to work with the South on restoring security along the tense border.

Mr Richardson praised Pyongyang for refraining from retaliation and said his visit to the North provided an opening for a resumption of negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programme.

North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks to provide Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarmament in April 2009, but since has said it is willing to resume them.

The White House, however, rejected the idea, saying Pyongyang needed to change its “belligerent” behaviour first and was not “even remotely ready” for negotiations.

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