Height of ‘tree’ at DMZ is cause of contention

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Height of ‘tree’ at DMZ is cause of contention

A conservative Protestant group and the military are at odds over the height of a planned Christmas tree to be erected at the inter-Korean border.

An 18-meter (59-foot) steel structure located on Aegibong Peak in Gimpo, northern Gyeonggi, was decorated with Christmas lights off and on for decades, to the annoyance of North Korea. But it was dismantled in October for safety reasons.

The Christian Council of Korea asked the Ministry of National Defense if it could build an artificial, tree-shaped structure at the same location and illuminate it for the holidays. The ministry granted permission on Dec. 2.

But the council and ministry are arguing over how high the tree should be. While the ministry said the tree can be as high as 9 meters, the council said it wants to build a 23-meter-high tree on a peak near the demilitarized zone. The peak is 165 meters high and located just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from North Korea.

The council has said building a taller structure is necessary so that people on the North Korean side of the border can see the lights. Construction has yet to begin and the tree is scheduled to be illuminated from Dec. 23 to Jan. 6, 2015.

According to Wee Yong-sub, deputy spokesman of the Defense Ministry, the tree construction was permitted under South Korea’s guarantee of religious freedom. But inter-Korean peace is also a factor and the ministry has no intention to accept the request for a taller tree. The controversy over the illuminated structure at the border has persisted since the initial structure was built in 1971. Until its removal earlier this year, the North reacted sensitively to the lights. In 2010, Pyongyang threatened to respond to them with shell fire. North Korea renewed its threat last week.

BY SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr ]

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