South Korea to rebuild 'Christmas tree' tower hated by North

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea said on Tuesday it would allow a Christian group to construct a new Christmas tree-shaped tower near the border with North Korea - a move certain to infuriate Pyongyang.

An existing tower was dismantled by the military earlier this year, triggering protests from church groups and anti-Pyongyang activists who accused the authorities of caving in to pressure from the North.

The old tower was 20m high and, in past years, church groups had decorated it with lights - topped with a giant cross - during the Christmas season. The atheist North viewed the light show as a provocative display of psychological warfare, and threatened to shell the tower unless it was removed.

When the South Korean military took it down in August, they said it was because the 43-year-old structure was unstable and dangerous. But following vocal protests, the defence ministry said Tuesday that the military had approved a request by the Christian Council of Korea (CCK) to set up a new tree tower.

"We accepted the request... to guarantee free religious activities," ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters.

North Korea is sure to condemn the move, having warned last month of the "catastrophic impact" of any effort to rebuild the dismantled structure.

"The tower is not a tool for religious events but a symbol of manic attempts to raise cross-border tension and provoke armed conflicts," the state-run KCNA news agency said.

The CCK said the new tower would be on a smaller scale from its predecessor.

"It will look like a bigger version of the typical Christmas tree you see and will be about nine metres high," a spokesman for the group told AFP.

The illumination of the old tower was determined by swings in always volatile cross-border ties, which are currently tense following a series of minor border skirmishes and disputes that have sidelined an agreement to resume high-level talks.

The South switched it off under a 2004 deal to halt official-level cross-border propaganda. But it was lit again in 2010 following the sinking of a South Korean warship, which Seoul blamed on a North Korean submarine.

The tower stayed dark in 2001 in the wake of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death and again in 2013 when military tensions were running high.

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North Korean Constitution, it does not exist in practice and religious activities are restricted to officially recognised groups linked to the government.