Chief Military Correspondent
Ah, Christmas on the Korean peninsula!
Reviving a tradition dormant for seven years, South Korea has erected a 100-foot Christmas tree-shaped tower on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, and decorated it with 100,000 lights -- and a lighted cross. As armed Republic of Korea Marines stood guard, a choir stood at the foot of the "tree'' and sang carols, amplified to blast the Christmas music into the mandatorily atheist North.
As expected in this tortured land where at least 1.6 million people (and probably twice that many) were killed, wounded or went missing in three years of war (1950-53), North Korea threatened to destroy the tower. South Korea vowed military retaliation if the North messed with its Christmas display.
To underscore its point, South Korea aims to launch major military maneuvers Thursday near the DMZ, involving just the kind of operation necessary to thwart a North Korean invasion: thousands of troops, tanks, artillery attack helicopters and jet fighters, all using live ammunition. It will be the biggest-ever wintertime war rehearsal, according to an AP dispatch from Seoul.
North Korea describes this situation as "the brink of war.'' Even if one were to ignite by accident or miscalculation in the jostling over the Christmas display, another conflict there could be devastating. Some 28,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed in South Korea.
South Korea forces, already on high alert since North Korean artillery struck a South Korean island last month, killing four people, also are holding four days of submarine warfare exercises off the east coast, where they will practice intercepting and destroying North Korean midget submarines.
While it's often North Korea that threatens and blusters, lobbing incendiary rhetoric at the outside world, this time it seems the South is talking smack.
"We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island," said Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army's 1st armored brigade, the AP reported.
Last week, authorities in Seoul -- within easy range of North Korean guns -- held the biggest civil defense drill in 35 years, as tens of thousands of people practiced racing into subway tunnels to escape an imaginary North Korean shelling.