Close-in map locating the DMZ and the 1953 maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea. South Korea sent troops to islands in the Yellow Sea following a North Korean attack.

Close-in map locating the DMZ and the 1953 maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea. South Korea sent troops to islands in the Yellow Sea following a North Korean attack. (MCT)

Close-in map locating the DMZ and the 1953 maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea. South Korea sent troops to islands in the Yellow Sea following a North Korean attack.

Close-in map locating the DMZ and the 1953 maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea. South Korea sent troops to islands in the Yellow Sea following a North Korean attack. (MCT)


YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea - Call them the refugees of an uneasy peace, or the latest victims of the Korean War.

Cho Heung-jun, 77, and his wife, Kim Sun-young, 71, are two of the 1,700 residents of Yeonpyeong Island, many of whom have been living in temporary housing on the mainland since North Korea shelled their isolated fishing-and-farming village on Nov. 23.

The couple recently returned to the island to check on their modest house, but the visit was far from a happy homecoming.

“I feel sad,” Kim said, as she fired up a space heater and found that the home’s water pipes were frozen or broken. “It’s like I’m in a stranger’s house.”

“I’m upset with everyone concerned and angry at the way we are being treated like criminals,” her husband said.

“The conditions we are living under … are repellent to me. We are not responsible for what happened, but the people involved in our national defense need to take greater responsibility for what happens to us.”

Against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty, the island evacuees face a difficult choice this week — do they return to the only life most of them have ever known on a sleepy little island in the crosshairs of a decades-old maritime border dispute between the North and South? Or do they extend their temporary stay away from Yeonpyeong at their own expense? Or do they permanently resettle in the unfamiliar hustle-and-bustle of the Korean mainland?

Some fear another attack. Some are waiting for their homes to be repaired or replaced. And, some are waiting for schools and businesses to re-open, and life to return to normal on the island.

All face a future filled with more questions than answers.

Too close for comfort

Those who refer to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas as the most dangerous place on earth might first want to check the geography and history that surrounds Yeonpyeong Island.

Yeonpyeong Island is, in fact, a collection of a half-dozen land masses — only two of which are inhabited — in the Yellow Sea about 50 miles west of the South Korean mainland, but less than 10 miles south of the North Korean coastline. It is best known for the blue crab caught off its shores.

The island sits immediately south of the Northern Limit Line, which has been the United Nations-recognized maritime border between North and South since Korean War hostilities ceased by armistice in 1953. In the 1990s, North Korea decided it would no longer recognize that line, instead insisting a newly drawn line miles to the south was the actual divider.

That maritime border dispute was the reason behind naval skirmishes between the two Koreas near the island in 1999 and 2002, which left dozens of sailors dead or injured and became known as the First and Second Battle of Yeonpyeong.

Despite lending its name to the conflicts, Yeonpyeong Island itself was not the scene of any fighting.

“The island was not even shelled during the Korean War,” said island resident and refugee committee spokesman Park Sung-ik, 46, speaking recently at his temporary office on the mainland. “Even though the island is near the border line between the two Koreas, we were never seriously sensitive to North Korea’s threats or provocations.”

All that changed on Nov. 23.

‘Painful to watch’

Cho, a grape farmer, said he was at the dock that day preparing to ship goods to the mainland on the ferry that was arriving, when he saw artillery shells raining down from the sky. “I called my wife and told her to run away fast,” he said.

His wife said she had just returned home and was tending to a bucket of oysters she had harvested when she got the call.

“I could not believe what was happening,” Kim said. “I thought it must be an accidental firing.”

After the first wave of shelling, Cho reunited with his wife, and they scurried to one of the island’s half-dozen bomb shelters and huddled in the entryway because there was no light inside the bunker.

They watched in horror as a neighbor’s house 10 yards away was hit by a shell and consumed by fire during the second wave of the attack.

“It was painful to watch … while my neighbor’s house was burning,” Kim said.

After several more shells exploded nearby, the couple ran to a shelter near the island’s high school.

“Many of the students were already in there,” Cho said. “I was in shock and ran to the shelter in a daze. It felt like my lungs were going to give out.”

Ten-year-old Park Se-jun said he will never forget seeing the body of someone killed in the attack as he was hustled toward a shelter.

“It was similar to a lump of meat,” he said. “It was torn apart. Policemen gathered up all of the parts of it. I was not afraid, but it felt strange.”

Shin Sung-min, 10, said he was playing outside when the shells started to fall.

“A middle-aged woman told me to run away as fast as I could to [a nearby building],” he said. “I saw another woman who was hit, and her legs were bleeding.”

By the time the attack ended, North Korea had launched about 170 shells from its mainland, about half of which hit Yeonpyeong Island. Two visiting construction workers and two South Korean marines were killed, and 18 were injured. About 30 of the island’s 500 homes were destroyed, and scores of others were damaged.

The South Korean military returned fire and scrambled fighter jets during the attack, but was widely criticized in the Korean media for its lackluster response.

In accepting responsibility for the attack, North Korea said it was only responding to a provocation from the South when artillery was fired in the direction of the North during an earlier military exercise.

In the wake of the attack, the majority of islanders were evacuated to the mainland.

They were initially housed at a spa building in Incheon, then moved to an apartment complex in nearby Gimpo, west of Seoul, where about 850 remain living at the South Korean government’s expense. While some of the others have returned, the rest of the island refugees are living temporarily with family or friends on the mainland.

In addition to subsidized housing, the South Korean government has paid the refugees a monthly stipend — about $1,350 per adult — in an effort to cover the income they have lost while away from the island.

Slow recovery

The South Korean government has announced plans to pay for the reconstruction of the homes and buildings that were damaged and destroyed, and make a number of unrelated public improvements on Yeonpyeong.

But, in the meantime, the island appears much like it did in the days immediately after the attack.

Clusters of charred homes gutted by fire stand surrounded by yellow police tape. Stray dogs presumably left behind by their owners roam the streets in search of food. The islands’ schools remain closed. Passing cars and pedestrians are infrequent sights, although some of the island’s businesses have reopened, and a few restaurants do cater to the 300 or so residents who have trickled back to Yeonpyeong.

While military vehicles are occasionally seen driving around, and bunkers and equipment for the 1,000 South Korean marines stationed here are scattered throughout the island, there is no more of an armed-camp feel than one gets in the vicinity of the DMZ on the mainland.

One woman who came back after spending a month on the mainland is Lee Gil-nyeo, 66, who said she is nervous that the island may again be attacked, but gave little or no thought to permanently moving from her home of 33 years.

“The mainland is noisy, complicated and the air is polluted,” she said, calmly stroking the head of her small dog as she sat in her living room. “I like it here.”

Chung Myung-nyeo, 84, said she moved to the island 50 years ago with her husband and could not imagine leaving.

“I can only gather oysters,” she said, as she hacked open shells on the island’s shoreline and filled up a bucket with the morsels of meat inside. “I can’t do anything else because I’m old.”

Song Young-ok, 50, said she also is too dug-in to consider leaving, even though her uncle sustained a head injury during the attack when a shell exploded near him as he planted trees.

She returned to the island just days after the attack to resume her responsibilities as a motel owner, ferry ticket saleswoman, grape and rice farmer and fisherwoman.

“The island is not stable, and everything is not in order right now,” she said. “But I believe the island will eventually return to normal.”

‘We’re now spiteful’

The glass in a window at Cho’s house was blown out by the concussion from a nearby explosion, and its frame sits covered in plastic awaiting repair. But the elderly man said not all the damage from Nov. 23 can be seen by the naked eye.

“In the past, Yeonpyeong Islanders were all good-natured and innocent,” he said. “But we were changed by this attack, which still haunts me. We quarrel with each other. We’re now spiteful.”

Those frustrations have been compounded by the conditions in temporary government-subsidized housing. The islanders in Gimpo live 10 or 12 to each sparsely furnished three-bedroom apartment. Most have only the clothes and possessions they could fit into a suitcase.

It’s not only the crowding, the refugees say, but the boredom that irritates them.

University student volunteers teach the 30 children refugees at the apartment complex, and there was a month-long art therapy program for them. Area religious and social organizations have donated food and supplies to the refugees, and concerts have been staged for the group.

But with no jobs, no homes to tend to and no familiarity with life on the mainland, most of the refugees spend their days watching TV or visiting with one another.

As Cho walked between apartment buildings recently, he asked a fellow islander headed toward the nearby shuttle bus stop where he was going.

“I don’t know,” the man said with a laugh, prompting Cho to point out that some refugees routinely ride the bus without stopping anywhere, just to have something to do in the afternoon.

As she sat with a group of refugees in her apartment, Kim Su-ja, 54, said, “We had plans and dreams on the island. Here, we just get up, eat something and go to bed, then repeat that pattern every day. We live like insects.”

She said some elected officials had visited the refugees, “but I have never heard the president mention us. Our government has forgotten us.”

A deadline approaches

On Thursday, the contract for the refugees’ temporary apartments expires, and government payments to the islanders are scheduled to end. Schools on the island are scheduled to reopen on March 1.

An Ongjin County spokesman said, “The county expects all of [the refugees] to return to the island after Feb. 17,” but conceded decisions have yet to be made about a number of things related to their fate.

The government has built enough temporary housing on the island, he said, to accommodate everyone whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged in the attack.

However, Park — the refugee committee spokesman — said the government has underestimated the number of people displaced because their homes were destroyed or badly damaged in the attack. He said there is only room for about 80 people in the temporary housing on the island, leaving 120 others whose homes are too badly damaged to return, even if they were ready to move back to Yeonpyeong.

He estimated that 60 percent of the refugees will return to the island this week to try to resume their lives as best they can, while the rest look for other accommodations on the mainland — at least until their island homes are repaired or replaced, or they feel more comfortable with the idea of living in Yeonpyeong.

Park said ultimately some will permanently relocate to the mainland, but he expects the vast majority of islanders to move back to the Yeonpyeong before the end of the year.

“On the island, everyone has their work to do,” he said. “They can move around … free as birds.”

A spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense insists the island is safe enough for everyone to return.

“We are poised to punish and retaliate against any provocation from the enemy,” the spokesman said.

Despite that, many of the refugees say they have not been happy with the amount of support and attention they have received from the South Korean government.

The money from the government has not nearly been what they would have made working on the island, they say, and officials are not moving fast enough in making good on their promise to make their village whole again.

Fisherman Kim Kyung-su, 59, said, “The government is just talking. It needs to just do something.”

Hope and anger

The refugees of Yeonpyeong Island have mixed feelings about recent overtures being made between the North and South about improving relations, including two days of failed meetings last week aimed at some sort of reconciliation.

On one hand, they see improved relations between the two Koreas as their best hope for long-term security on the island. On the other, they are angry that the North might find its way back into the good graces of the world community without ever being punished for the attack on their village.

“The North should be eliminated for shelling civilians as targets and stabbing the South in the back,” Lee Gil-nyeo said. “It is unbelievable that the North would dare attack us in spite of the aid we give to it. We should not send even a piece of rice there anymore.”

Cho believes there’s no way to guarantee safety for the Islanders, even if the inter-Korean talks do happen.

Still, the 77-year-old farmer said he planned to return to the island this month.

“Yeonpyeong Island is where I was born. It’s my hometown.”

author picture
Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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