War on Christmas Hits Korean Peninsula

By Patrick Goodenough | December 12, 2011 | 4:34 AM EST

Visible for miles around, a 100 foot-high steel Christmas “tree” stands on Aegibong hill near the DMZ in December 2010. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – North Korea on Sunday made unspecified threats against plans by Christians in the South to illuminate giant steel Christmas “trees” near the world’s most heavily armed border, warning of “unexpected consequences” resulting from what the Stalinist regime views as a propaganda stunt.

The South Korean government has given permission for evangelical groups to light three of the structures for 15 days, beginning just before Christmas, in locations where they will potentially be seen by hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.

One of them, on a high point called Aegibong hill near the western end of the 160 mile-long border, will be within viewing distance of Kaesong, a North Korean city with a population of more than 300,000.

The other two will be placed on observation platforms along the border further to the east.

The South Korean Christians say they aim through the campaign to send a message of support to fellow believers in the Stalinist-ruled North, a country regarded by many religious freedom advocates as the world’s worst place to be a Christian.

South Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, described as the world’s biggest church, is organizing the project.

“This is a ceremony for peace on the Korean peninsula and national unity,” Stars and Stripes quoted church representative Tak Sejin as saying. “We are doing this with the expectation that someday our people can become one.”

The 100 foot-high steel structure at Aegibong hill comprises tapering streamers of light, decorated with stars and snowflakes, and topped by a cross.

Pyongyang objects both to the religious symbolism, and the implicit display of prosperity visible to citizens of a country where electricity supplies are rationed and power outages – usually blamed on America – are daily occurrences.

“The aim of the conservatives is to provoke us and step up anti-republic psychological warfare through the gambit of lighting the tower,” Pyongyang’s “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea” Web site said in a bulletin Sunday.

“If the gambit leads to unpredictable results, all responsibilities will be laid on the warmongers of the puppet regime,” it added.

Last year was the first time the Aegibong structure had been lit since 2004, when the two Koreas agreed to suspend activities regarded as spreading propaganda across the border.

At the time South Korea’s liberal President Roh Moo-hyun was pursuing his predecessor’s “sunshine” policy of rapprochement with the Kim Jong-il regime, a program which many South Korean conservatives viewed as little more than a series of unreciprocated concessions.

During summit talks that year, the two governments agreed to halt activities, which for years had included anti-regime broadcasting and the dropping of leaflets – usually by non-governmental organizations in the South. Some groups had floated small radio receivers over the border by balloon, and reports from North Korean refugees later spoke of how important the smuggled radios had been. For many, listening to programs about the outside world had provided the incentive to make an escape bid, they said.

The propaganda ban largely held for several years, despite some attempts by private groups by bypass it.

After the election in 2008 of conservative President Lee Myung-bak, Seoul-based opponents of the Kim regime – including defectors from the North – ignored government requests and launched tens of thousands of balloons carrying leaflets aimed at ordinary North Koreans, calling for an end to Kim Jong-il’s rule.

The official ban on the Christmas lights ended in 2010, after North Korea launched a deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island, the first direct shelling of its kind since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Last year the Aegibong Christmas tree was lit up for more than two weeks and North Korean threats to shell the site did not materialize.

This year the Defense Ministry says extra security will be deployed at the Aegibong site and at the two new locations.

According to the U.S. State Department’s most recent report on international religious freedom, although the constitution provides for “freedom of religious belief,” North Korea in practice severely restricts religious freedom.

Only two Protestant, one Catholic and one Orthodox state-controlled church are permitted to operate, the report said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2011 report that “anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious activity is subject to discrimination, arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and public execution.”

The religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors estimates that there are some 400,000 Christian believers in North Korea, and that 50,000-70,000 of them are incarcerated in labor camps.

Open Doors has listed North Korea at No. 1 on its annual World Watch List of countries most hostile to Christians for the past nine consecutive years.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow