Residents' fears on South Korean island grow amid military drills
YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — Amid a cluster of modest homes in the middle of town, a reminder of the not-so-distant past of this rural island is tucked away under a tarp two stories high.
Beneath this giant green shroud is a monument of sorts, a sobering, ghoulish display of half-standing brick walls and melted vinyl that local residents call “security education.” It’s the charred remains of a handful of houses blown apart when North Korean shells hit the island during a surprise attack more than a year ago.
The ruins are both a reminder of what happened on Nov. 23, 2010, and what could happen again – a near constant worry for many residents, thanks to the increased uncertainty on the peninsula following Kim Jong Il’s death in December, and the rise to power of his son, Kim Jong Un.
This week, those worries intensified, with North Korea’s threat to launch a “sacred war” in retaliation for ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
The annual computerized Key Resolve exercise began Monday and ends March 9, while the larger Foal Eagle field exercise – in which 11,000 U.S. forces and as many as 200,000 South Korean troops are expected to participate – began Thursday and will continue through April 30.
And while North Korea routinely makes such threats during war games, many islanders say they are deeply disturbed by the rhetoric now coming from the North because so little is known about Kim Jong Un.
“People here cried” after television stations broadcast the threats from the North, said Cho Chul-hui, a tourist fishing guide on the tiny island known for its crab and yellow croaker. “I didn’t sleep a wink the night I heard about it.”
His mother, Kim Sun-young, 72, said a half-dozen of her friends, terrified of another attack, have left the island for part or all of the military exercises. She worries that if there is another bombing, the above-ground shelter now under construction across the street from her house won’t be sturdy enough to offer enough protection.
But Yeonpyeong is her home and she is too old to leave, Kim said, even though she believes North Korea’s angry rhetoric this time.
“This time it is more serious,” she said. “Kim Jong Un is very young, and if someone is very young, they feel they can do anything,” she said.
Even the announcement Thursday morning of North Korea’s agreement to allow American inspectors to tour its nuclear facilities in exchange for food aid did little to make Park Ok-whan, 63, believe Kim Jong Un won’t attack again.
“North Korea is happy when it gets gifts of food, but only at that time. Who knows what Kim Jong Un will do after that,” said Park, whose house was destroyed in the 2010 attack.
Despite the heavy South Korean military presence on the island, an undercurrent of anxiety pervades life here.
Park Myong-sun, 67, said she didn’t know about the U.S.-South Korean exercises, but said she constantly worries the North Korean “bastards” will find reason to strike again.
“North Korea did it once, so they may do it another time,” said Park, who also lost her house in the attack and now lives with six family members in a cramped, temporary house funded by the government. Another woman, the mother of two small children, said she is more worried now than at any point since the November 2010 attack. The woman, who declined to giver her name because her husband is stationed with the South Korean military here, said the North isn’t worried about possible retaliation.
“North Korea knows that if it bombs again, it won’t be an all-out war,” said the 40-year-old woman. “North Korea knows it can get away with it. They bombed once, so they will do it again.”
After the bombing, which forced hundreds of people to flee on their fishing boats to a neighboring island, residents were evacuated to the mainland for several months, where they lived with shelters or friends or relatives.
Though most, if not all, of the islanders have returned, life here has changed in innumerable small ways.
Some housewives say they now routinely tune into the news instead of soap operas. After spending months worrying about their own survival, many say people are less generous and friendly. The central village is dotted with gleaming new brick houses, replacements for those that were destroyed, and construction on a handful of bomb shelters is under way.
And, for several hours each month, life comes to an abrupt halt during the South Korean military’s live-fire exercises, when everyone from fishermen to schoolchildren is required to move to the bomb shelters.
Lee Kyong Sun said she worries about another attack, but refuses to leave the island where she and her husband, a fisherman, own a small minbak, or inn.
Keeping a civilian presence on Yeonpyeong is critical, she said.
“We want to protect the island,” she said. “If not, North Korea will take it.”