S Korean soldiers on guard to protect Christmas tree

Last Updated: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 20:46

Seoul: South Korean marines were on guard on Tuesday to protect a Christmas tree, the latest focus of
tensions with North Korea following Seoul`s artillery drill
near the disputed sea border a day earlier.

A South Korean church switched on Christmas lights in
the shape of a tree atop a military-controlled hill near the
tense land border -- the first such display for seven years.

"This is purely for religious purposes," pastor Koh
Young-Yong said to a news agency, adding the ceremony drew about 300 church members.

The event came a day after South Korea staged a
live-fire exercise on the border island of Yeonpyeong, which
was bombarded by North Korea last month.

The North forswore retaliation despite previously
vowing a deadly response to the South`s drill. But officials
were concerned the Christmas tree could become a target for
attack.

When asked by lawmakers if South Korea would fire back
in case of a North Korean attack on the Christmas tree,
Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin replied: "We are ready to
retaliate resolutely so that the source of gunfire will be
removed."

A defence ministry spokesman said: "Marines are
maintaining the highest level of alertness around the hill,"
citing the North`s continued threats to strike border
propaganda facilities.

The 155-metre (511-foot) hill, about three kilometres
(two miles) from the border, is within range of North Korean
gunfire.

The two Koreas in 2004 reached a deal to halt
official-level cross-border propaganda and the South stopped
its annual Christmas tree illumination ceremony.

The communist North had accused the South of
displaying Christmas lights to spread religion among its
people and soldiers. The North`s constitution provides for
religious freedom, but the US State Department says this does
not in practice exist.

The South has partially resumed a cross-border
government propaganda campaign following the March sinking of
a South Korean warship and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong,
which killed four people including two civilians.

Soon after last month`s artillery attack, the South`s
military reportedly floated 400,000 leaflets across the border
denouncing the North`s regime.

PTI



First Published: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 20:46

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