News / Asia

Yeonpyeong Island Residents Fear Another N. Korean Strike

A bombed out house island of Yeonpyeong that was struck by North Korean artillery, 30 Nov 2010
A bombed out house island of Yeonpyeong that was struck by North Korean artillery, 30 Nov 2010
Jason Strother

Days after a North Korean artillery barrage killed four people on Yeonpyeong island, only a few residents remain.

Authorities hurried everyone on the island into bomb shelters. Sounds of artillery explosions had been heard in the distance. The South Korean military reported that a North Korean base just 12 kilometers across the sea placed surface-to-surface missiles on the launch pad.

Residents feared a repeat of North Korea's artillery attack on the island on November 23.

But after a half hour, authorities said the coast was clear and residents could return to their homes.

Ghost town

Only about 30 of Yeonpyeong's 1,500 inhabitants remain. Most evacuated to Incheon, a two-hour ferry ride away.

The community is a ghost town, homes abandoned and shops closed.

The frequent sound of military helicopters flying overhead is a reminder that Yeonpyeong is on the frontline of the Cold War's last battleground.

Why some stay

Choi Cheol-young, district director for Yeonpyeong, said those who remained did so either because they do not have enough resources or are too old to travel on the boat to the mainland.

Choi said they do not encourage anyone to leave the island and go to Incheon. And if they stay, they support them administratively and also provide them with food.

Controlled access

The South Korean military now controls who has access to the island, and has the authority to order residents off Yeonpyeong if they fear another attack is eminent.

Judging by the devastation from North Korea's bombardment, it is clear why officials are taking no chances with the safety of citizens.

A resident's story

In one neighborhood struck by the shelling, glass is everywhere. Several houses have collapsed, others have been gutted by fire.

Ahn Gwang-hun, a 50-year resident of Yeonpyeong, who stayed behind after the attacks
Ahn Gwang-hun, a 50-year resident of Yeonpyeong, who stayed behind after the attacks

But just one block away from this wreckage is the home of Ahn Gwang-hun. The 50-year resident witnessed the attack.

Ahn said they were making kimchi when the attack happened. But they are not ready to leave the island, there are still many things they need to do here.

Ahn, like most other residents, is a fisherman. But the military has banned civilian boats from going to sea. So Ahn and others still here do what they can to pass the time. Some residents give free rides to visiting journalists, others repair the damage to their homes.

Help for homeless

For those who no longer have a home to return to, the South Korean government offers help.

Outside the Yeonpyeong elementary school, crews are building small shelters.

Kim Sam Yeol, the project manager, said they are building 15 temporary houses for the people whose homes were destroyed in the attack, so when they return to the island they will have a place to stay while they reconstruct their own houses.

But Kim does not know when people will start coming back to Yeonpyeong.

District manager Choi hopes it will be soon. But he said it may take some incentives.  

Choi said, the island has a long history and he does not think it will ever be completely abandoned. But the government will have to help encourage the people to move back.

Doubts about returning

But for Yeonpyeong residents like 71-year-old Park Myung-jae, it will take more than encouragements to return home.

Park is from a smaller nearby island that was also shelled. He is now staying with family in Incheon and returned to the island for just a short time to check on his home.

Park said there have been many firefights near the island in the past, but the last one was different because of the two civilian deaths. And he added that his government should have been more prepared to protect the residents of Yeonpyeong.

Park said he does not know when it will become peaceful enough for him to return home.

"Over the years, North Korea has made many attacks near the island. I think the government should have had more missile or soldiers stationed here, they failed to stop this attack from happening," Park said.

North Korea's artillery attack killed two civilians and two South Korean marines, and prompted South Korean troops on the island to return fire. Pyongyang said the South provoked the attack by firing into a disputed area of the ocean during a military training exercise. Seoul said its forces were training well away from the disputed area.         

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