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Uncertain Yeonpyeong residents return home

INCHEON, South Korea — Yeonpyeong Island residents have returned home in surprisingly large numbers this week despite the fears of many that North Korea will again attack their fishing village.

Islanders cited a number of reasons for going back three months after North Korea launched an artillery attack on their isolated Yellow Sea island. The most common one: They missed the small-town lifestyle they have grown to love for most or all of their lives.

“I have no place else to go, and it is my hometown,” said Kim Kuyng-sik, a 59-year-old fisherman, as he waited to board a ferry with more than 100 of his fellow islanders Thursday for the 2.5-hour ride back to Yeonpyeong. “I am anxious about North Korea. I would not be able to deal with this happening again.

“I have even had dreams that wake me up every four or five days in which Kim Jong Il is following me by ship, and I run away,” Kim said.

Four people were killed, 18 were injured, 30 homes were destroyed and scores of others were damaged when North Korea fired 170 rounds of artillery at Yeonpyeong Island, which sits near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas, about 50 miles west of the South Korean mainland and less than 10 miles south of the North Korean coastline.

The North said it launched the attack in retaliation for an exercise during which South Korea fired missiles in its direction.

In the wake of the shelling, the vast majority of the island’s 1,700 residents were evacuated to the mainland. Many stayed with relatives, while about half were eventually housed in temporary, government-subsidized apartments in Gimpo, west of Seoul.

The islanders housed in the apartments said that despite living rent-free and being given a monthly government subsidy to help cover lost wages, they were bored and turned off by the hustle-and-bustle of life on the crowded mainland.

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South Korean government officials have promised to fund the replacement or repair of all the destroyed or damaged homes. In the meantime, temporary housing for about 80 people has been built on the island.

Thursday was the day the government stopped subsidizing the temporary housing on the mainland, forcing island residents to decide whether to relocate permanently to the mainland, find another form of temporary housing there or return to their island home.

Park Sung-ik, an island resident and spokesman for a committee representing the Yeonpyeong refugees, predicted recently that about 60 percent of the islanders would return this week, with the rest trickling back over the course of the next year.

However, this week he said it appeared all but 60 or 70 of the residents would be back on the island by the end of the week, with only a few perhaps deciding to stay on the mainland permanently.

Asked to assess the mood of the returning islanders, Park said, “equal parts anxiety and happiness.”

As she waited to take the Thursday morning ferry, Kim Won-ja, 52, a clothing saleswoman, said, “I’ve heard from someone that North Korea might take people from the … islands on the Yellow Sea as hostages. So, it is not safe.”

“I feel happy about going back to my home, but anxious,” said 17-year-old Won Ji-hui. “I think North Korea will shell us again … but I believe the South Korean military will protect us. We cannot help ourselves in that situation.”

Kim Kyung-sik said that while South Korea is strong and well-equipped, he fears the South will not be able to respond as strongly as it might in the event of another attack on the island, “because of international relationships, foreign affairs” and fear a full-scale war might break out as a result.

One byproduct of the attack, according to Chung Ae-sook, 50, who owns a boat and crabbing business, is that fishing crewmen are refusing to work off Yeonpyeong Island or demanding higher wages to do so.

“They are afraid of the possibility of future shelling,” she said. “These crews are from other regions, so they do not feel any obligation to work on the island. They can find work anywhere.”

Oh Yeon-ok, 74, a farmer and oyster harvester, said -– the threat of North Korea aside –- she did not know what to expect upon her return to the island, where she and her son will move into one of the small temporary housing units built by the government while waiting for her longtime home to be rebuilt.

“I will have a hard time living on the island again, because I have nothing – no TV, refrigerator or even dishes,” she said. “The South Korean government only gave us a rice cooker. The only other things I have are my blankets.”

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil

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