The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Korea approves plan for new Christmas tree to annoy North Korea

It's Christmas time, and North Korea will soon get a holiday greeting. On Tuesday, South Korea approved a plan from a Christian activist group to set up an illuminated Christmas tree along the border of its northern neighbor on Dec. 23, the Associated Press reports. For two weeks, the 30-foot-tall tree is supposed to send a message of peace -- but it will almost certainly prompt anger instead.

Until recently, a 65-foot-tall tower that was first set up in 1971 and later converted to resemble a Christmas tree was visible to North Koreans living close to the border. The tower was repeatedly condemned by the North, who called it a "provocative display of psychological warfare," according to the Guardian.

To counter the holiday symbol, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime threatened to fire shells at the tower. Earlier this year, South Korea's military took the structure down, arguing that it was no longer safe. Some, however, considered the decision to be a political message from South Korea to the North.

In October, North Korea warned of a "catastrophic impact" if a similar structure was ever rebuilt. “The tower is not a tool for religious events but a symbol of manic attempts to raise cross-border tension and provoke armed conflicts," North Korean news agency KCNA said.

Such threats, however, do not seem to have deterred South Korea. “We accepted the request … to guarantee free religious activities,” South Korean defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said on Tuesday, referring to the Christian group's new plan.

Officially, North Korea is an atheist country, and the possession of a Bible can result in imprisonment or even death. According to North Korean teaching, the country's late founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son, Kim Jong Il, are referred to as gods and other religious beliefs or symbols are suppressed in the secretive nation.

Activists have tried to find ways to reach North Koreans by sending them Christian messages. In the past, balloons carrying plastic bags with pamphlets of Bible scripture were sent to the North.

In 2005, Douglas Shin, a California-based Korean American missionary involved in the efforts, told The Washington Post: "Some people don't like using the word crusade, but that's exactly what this is -- a crusade to liberate North Korea."

A recent U.N. report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea identified religious believers among six groups of victims against whom North Korea had committed crimes against humanity. "[Religion] has been compared to a drug, narcotics, a sin, and a tool of Western and capitalist invasion. Christian missionaries are portrayed as the product of USA capitalism and work akin to vampirism," the report noted.

There were also indications of a "genocide against religious groups, specifically Christians, in particular in the 1950s and 1960s." The North Korean regime has denied those allegations.

Because of the persecution of Christians all over North Korea, Christmas is a holiday that can only be celebrated under extreme danger. Instead, on Dec. 24, the isolated country celebrates the birthday of Kim Jong Suk, the mother of Kim Jong Il. Many people make pilgrimages to her birthplace in the northeastern part of the country.

For Constitution Day, celebrated shortly afterward, North Koreans get a day off. As Time pointed out in 2009, it is uncertain whether the dates of those revolution-related events are coincidences or whether they are supposed to deliberate substitute for Christmas.