GIMPO, South Korea — As troops stood guard and a choir sang carols, South Koreans lit a massive steel Christmas tree that overlooks the world's most heavily armed border and is within sight of atheist North Korea.
The lighting of the tree Tuesday after a seven-year hiatus marked a pointed return to a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda. The provocative ceremony — which needed government permission — was also a sign that President Lee Myung-bak's administration is serious about countering the North's aggression with measures of its own in the wake of an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans last month.
While the North has made some conciliatory gestures in recent days — indicating to a visiting U.S. governor that it might allow international inspections of its nuclear programs — Seoul appears unmoved.
Pyongyang has used a combination of aggression and reconciliation before to extract concessions from the international community, and the resurrection of the tree lighting at Aegibong signaled the South was ready to play hardball until it sees real change from the North.
Earlier, a South Korean destroyer prowled the sea and fighter jets tore across the skies in preparation for possible North Korean attacks, a day after Seoul held a round of artillery drills from front-line Yeonpyeong Island near the Koreas' disputed western sea boundary.
On Wednesday, South Korea's navy began annual firing and anti-submarine exercises off the less-tense east coast. South Korea's army and air force also planned large-scale joint firing drills near the Koreas' land border Thursday. The routine training will involve more weapons and troops because of ongoing tension.
"We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island," Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army's 1st armored brigade, said in a statement.
After warning of deadly retaliation for the firing drills the South staged Monday, North Korea said it would not deign to fight back, and indicated to visiting New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson it was prepared to consider ways to work with the South on restoring security along the tense border.
Richardson praised Pyongyang for refraining from retaliation and said his visit to the North provided an opening for a resumption of negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks to provide Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarmament in April 2009, but since has said it is willing to resume them.
The White House, however, rejected the idea, saying Pyongyang needed to change its "belligerent" behavior first and was not "even remotely ready" for negotiations.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday there were no plans to debrief Richardson after his trip. What Washington wants from the North, he said, is conciliatory deeds, not words.
"Six-party talks will be restarted again when the North Koreans display a willingness to change behavior. We're not going to get a table in a room and have six-party talks just for the feel-good notion of having six-party talks," he said.
In Seoul, a senior South Korean government official said the military would remain prepared for the possibility of a "surprise" attack in coming days. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
On Aegibong Peak, about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) from the border that divides the Korean peninsula, marines toting rifles circled the Christmas tree as more than 100,000 twinkling lights blinked on. The brightly lit tree — with a cross on top — stood in stark relief to North Korea, where electricity is limited.
Choir members dressed in white robes trimmed in blue and wearing red scarves and Santa Claus hats gathered beneath the steel structure draped with multicolored lights, illuminated stars and snowflakes. An audience of about 200 listened as they sang "Joy to the World" and other Christmas carols.
"I hope that Christ's love and peace will spread to the North Korean people," said Lee Young-hoon, a pastor of the Seoul church that organized the lighting ceremony. About 30 percent of South Koreans are Christian.
The 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) steel tree sits on a peak high enough for North Koreans living in border towns to see it, and well within reach of their nation's artillery.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said an attack from North Korea was certainly possible but unlikely. The event took place uninterrupted.
North Korea is officially atheist and with only a handful of sanctioned churches in Pyongyang with services for foreigners.
For decades, the rival Koreas have fought an ideological war, using leaflets, loudspeakers and radio broadcasts across the border. At the height of the propaganda, South Korea's military speakers blared messages near the border 20 hours a day, officials say.
South Korea halted the campaign about seven years ago — including the longtime practice of lighting the huge Christmas tree — as ties between North and South warmed under an era of reconciliation. The church had sought government permission to light the tree over the years, but had been denied several years running.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee, Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Kwang-tae in Seoul, Mark S. Smith in Washington and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.