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S. Korea OKs setup of Christmas tree near border with N. Korea

South Korea has approved a local religious group's plan to build and light a giant Christmas tree near the western inter-Korean border, the defense ministry said Tuesday, despite expectations of strong opposition from North Korea.

The Christian Council of Korea (CCK) has sought for the government's approval to restore a now-dismantled Christmas tree tower on top of Aegibong, a front-line hill in Gimpo, west of Seoul, around the Christmas season, saying their move is one of hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The tower on the 165-meter hill, which had long been served as a propaganda tool against North Korea, was torn down last month 43 years after its establishment. The military said the demolition was not for improving relations with the communist neighbor but for safety reasons due to the old structure.

"The CCK sought (the government's approval) to set up a Christmas tree temporarily and hold a lightening ceremony," defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told a regular briefing. "The ministry accepted the request as their move was for the inter-Korean peace and to guarantee their religious freedom."   

The nine-meter-tall Christmas tree will be erected right at the place where the old tower was located, and it will be lit up for two weeks starting Dec. 23, according to the officials.

The tree-lighting ceremony first started out as a religious event in 1971, but it has been considered a tool of psychological warfare against the North as its sparkling lights can be seen from the North Korean side. Pyongyang has bashed the tower as a provocative move. 

The tower had been lit annually during the Christmas season until the two Koreas agreed to halt propaganda activities in 2004.

But Seoul resumed the event in 2010 upon the North's torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan that year, though it had often skipped the ceremony so as not to provoke the communist country.  

The inter-Korean relations have been deadlocked since last month when the two Koreas failed to hold a planned second round of high-level talks and the United Nations passed a resolution condemning the dire human rights situation in the communist country. 

Pyongyang has since staged a series of armed provocations and heightened its rhetoric against the South. (Yonhap)

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