With Christmas just days away, the streets here in South Korea seem even more crowded than usual. There are people rushing around doing their Christmas shopping and Christmas carols playing at every store you pass. There’s just something about this time of year that makes the world seem more at peace, more joyful. It’s a time when we can forget our troubles and just enjoy the company of the people we love. Or even just enjoy the time away from work.
But there is at least one place that I can think of that won’t be enjoying the same things that you and I will be enjoying this Sunday.
Christmas is not a holiday that is celebrated in North Korea. And that would be because most North Koreans don’t know about Christmas. They don’t know about the story of baby Jesus in a manger, they don’t know about Santa Claus, and they definitely don’t know about Rudolph and his friends. Because Christmas is traditionally considered a religious holiday, the North makes sure that none of that “nonsense” is leaked into the minds of the North Korean people.
But Christmas is just one those holidays that needs to be shared. It brings out in us a desire to share and give and spread joy. And South Korea has been trying to do just that through a Christmas tree. Or three Christmas trees.
More specifically, the Christmas tree is a 90 ft. tall tower made of steel and decorated with lights and Christmas decorations. There are exactly three of these towers and they’re located about two miles from the border of North Korea in the eastern, central, and western parts. It’s said that the lights from the tower can be seen from as far as the North Korean city Kaesung. It started out as one tower and used to be lit every Christmas by individual Christian groups until 2004, when the two Koreas’ relations became more agreeable and made a settlement to not light the towers anymore. However, last year in 2010, the South Korean government allowed the towers to be lit up again for the first time in seven years as relations had deteriorated after the Cheonan and Yeonpyong Island incidents. The towers were to be lit once again this year, but you can imagine the anger this caused for North Korea.
When South Korea announced that the towers were to be lit again this Christmas, North Korea responded with rage through its website, Uriminzokkiri, saying that the act was “a mean attempt for psychological warfare” to spread Christianity to the North Korean people. It threatened that South Korea will have to deal with “unexpected consequences” if the towers were lit. However, despite these threats, South Korea was adamant about lighting the towers. That is, until Kim Jong Il died a few days ago. That changes things.
Currently, South Korea is at its highest alert, ready for anything that the North might do. This also means that South Korea will try to refrain from giving the North any excuse to act with provocations. On December 20th, one day after the reported death of Kim Jong Il, the South Korean government decided that the lighting of the towers will have to be put off “because it is not timely in the current situation.”
It really is a shame that the towers won’t be lit this year. I’d like to imagine that some North Koreans who have seen the towers in previous years may have been looking forward to seeing the lights again. They may not know what the towers are supposed to symbolize but at least they could see it and maybe earn some hope from it. Or even just the chance to see something bright and beautiful would have been nice because average North Koreans don’t get chances like this very often, if ever. But that’s not going to happen this year. Fortunately, next year brings a new Christmas and another chance to share the Christmas joy with North Korea. All we can do is hope that we get that chance.
I don’t mean to spoil your holiday joy with grim news such as this. But I do ask that you remember the North Koreans this Christmas. The situation in the North does not stop existing just because the holidays come around. And with the death of Kim Jong Il, it just might get worse. We should all remember this.
But please do still enjoy the holidays!