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January 25, 2011

Some South Koreans Optimistic About Talks with Pyongyang

by Jason Strother

Two months ago, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people. Most residents of that island and a neighboring islet have yet to return to their homes, in part for fear of another attack. But the islanders hope that the chance of talks between Seoul and Pyongyang will make it easier to go home.

Post-attack

About 900 Yeonpyeong islanders are staying in government-supplied apartments in the city of Gimpo, northwest of Seoul, and receive monthly stipends.

They fled their homes in November, after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, and neighbor Seo-Yeonpyeong.

Han Bok-yeo, 61, is one of them. Han ran a seafood restaurant on Seo-Yeonpyeong.  She says it was complete chaos when the attack occurred on November 23.

She says she panicked. At first she did not realize it was an attack, she just thought it was normal military drills. But when she realized it was North Korea firing, she and some neighbors fled into the island's mountain.

Han and her neighbors later boarded a fishing boat bound for the closest port on the mainland, Incheon. She has not returned home since.

Back story


North Korea says it launched the artillery barrage in retaliation for South Korean military exercises that fired live shells into its waters.

South Korea denies that it fired toward the North, and says the exercises were routine, and widely publicized in advance.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula rose sharply last year, after a South Korean navy ship exploded and sank, killing 46 sailors. An international investigation team said it was the result of a North Korean torpedo, which Pyongyang denied.

Seoul and the United States ramped up military exercises, including joint naval training near waters that Pyongyang claims are its territory.

Current situation

After the Yeonpyeong shelling, there were fears the situation could escalate sharply. South Korean and American troops were put on heightened alert. Pyongyang issued threats that it would attack again if South Korea and the U.S. carried out joint naval drills. But a second clash never happened and since the start of this year, North Korea has signaled it is ready to talk with the Seoul government.

Seoul has suggested a preliminary meeting on February 11 to discuss arrangements for high-level military talks.

Some security analysts here say Pyongyang's charm offensive is just a means for the cash-strapped government to seek aid from the South.  But Yeonpyeong Island residents are hopeful about the future of talks.

Future aspirations

Lee Seong-bon, 51, a fisherman from Seo-Yeonpyeong Island, is a member of a residents' committee that was formed after the evacuation. He says renewed dialogue could ease the fears of many islanders about returning to their homes.

Lee says he has a positive feeling about the military talks. He says he hopes that the islanders can get assurance that North Korea will not launch any more attacks and make sure that when they go back home, they will be safe.

But, Lee says, Yeonpyeong islanders want both the North and South Korean governments to make new promises to the displaced residents.  

Lee adds that he wants an apology from North Korea over the attack, but he also wants a stronger guarantee from the South Korean government that it will better protect the island's residents.

Seo-Yeonpyeong Island resident Han Bok Yeo is not too concerned about whether the North apologizes for the attack.

Han says she does not know much about the talks, but she just hopes that she can get back to the island soon, whether as a result of the discussions or not.

But Han and the other island residents might not have to wait much longer to return, even if they are not ready. Their government housing and financial support ends February 18.