North Korea threatens to attack South over Christmas lights

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The Independent Online

Seasonal goodwill is in short supply on the divided Korean peninsula, where both sides are again at potentially deadly loggerheads – over a Christmas tree.

North Korea's military is reportedly preparing to shoot down a floodlit tower decorated with Christmas lights which overlooks the border near the South's capital, Seoul – home to millions of Christians.

The provincial governor, Kim Moon-soo, has warned that firing at the tree would be a reckless and "provocative" act. The South's Defence Minister was more blunt. "We'll retaliate decisively to take out the source of any shelling," Kim Kwan-jin told parliament yesterday. South Korea's Yonhap news agency said fighter jets were on standby, ready to strike back.

Standing 100ft tall, topped off with a cross and decorated with 100,000 light bulbs, the tower can be seen for miles inside the impoverished Stalinist backwater, where electricity cuts are common and ageing power plants generate a fraction of the South's power output. Pyongyang scoffs at Seoul's claims that its purpose is religious, not political, and said it is psychological warfare.

Seoul resumed blasting unwanted messages through giant loudspeakers across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in May, after an international panel blamed the North for sinking a warship with the loss of 46 South Korean sailors. Pyongyang has threatened to shell the speakers and warned this week that the renewed propaganda offensive risks starting all-out war. Threats like that forced organisers to declare a moratorium on the annual tree-lighting ceremony in 2004.

Both sides have been on hair-trigger alert since the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island last month in disputed waters near its border, killing two civilians. Pyongyang pulled back from threatened retaliation on Monday after the South Korean military fired thousands of shells on the island during live-fire drills.