Islanders live in fear a year after NKorean attack

AP News
Posted: Nov 21, 2011 3:11 AM
Islanders live in fear a year after NKorean attack

Pungent boxes of crabs piled at the dock for export confirm the revival of ancient daily routines a year after North Korean artillery turned this tiny island's downtown into an inferno. Under the surface, deep scars remain.

People on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island say that even as rage over the North's attack dims, they still live in fear of another volley of shells from their unpredictable neighbor just 7 miles (11 kilometers) north across some of the Yellow Sea's richest crabbing waters.

"Whenever I hear something go 'boom!' I panic and assume somebody is attacking us again," said Jeong Soon-seon, a spry 79-year-old who has lived on Yeonpyeong since she fled fighting in her North Korean hometown during the Korean War six decades ago.

A year ago Wednesday, North Korea unexpectedly raised the stakes in the decades-long dispute over its maritime border with South Korea by launching the first attack on a civilian area since the war, and catapulting the neighbors to the brink of a new all-out conflict.

Jeong's house survived, but many of her neighbors' homes were reduced to rubble, scorched wood and twisted metal when North Korea fired 150 shells onto this front-line island shared by fishermen and South Korean military garrisons.

Even now, Jeong keeps a packed bag and flashlight near her bed in case she has to evacuate in the middle of the night.

"I have even asked myself why the shells didn't hit my house and kill me and sometimes regret that they didn't," she said.

North Korea's attack _ in response to what South Korea called routine firing drills near the disputed frontier _ killed two laborers and two marines and left destruction reminiscent of the earlier war. South Korea scrambled jets and evacuated residents to the mainland.

War seemed imminent at the time, but that is hard to believe now, especially when you see the island's coast at sunset. Rugged low mountains plunge into the water, their tops blanketed by green trees. A fishing boat carves a wake through calm, sun-sparkling sea.

The fish and crabs bobbing in the boiling red broth of the islanders' beloved and well-named "spicy soup" taste like they've been plucked from the Yellow Sea an hour earlier. In the evening, when fishermen bring home the crab haul, fellow islanders help out, squatting as they use knives to pry crabs from nets.

But reminders of the attack are everywhere: Newly painted walls are still pockmarked from shrapnel; a nationalist group's sun-faded banner at the port vows vengeance against the North; posters warn of unexploded shells.

Entire streets have turned into construction sites. Men in hardhats drink soju liquor during breaks from the incessant building, and hundreds of empty green bottles overflow from huge recycling bins. The attack completely destroyed nearly 50 houses and buildings, and damaged an estimated 250 others.

Families who lost everything live in tiny, temporary houses, sleeping together in a living room and sharing a bathroom with barely enough room for a toilet and shower nozzle.

Many speak of lingering shock from last year's attack, showing visitors the now-rusted shrapnel that nearly killed them or the mangled part of a home that burned to the ground.

Choi Eun-sook says her neighbors get scared by small amounts of smoke; they get upset more easily and raise their voices more often. Her 10-year-old granddaughter doesn't like to stay home by herself.

"Some people still struggle inside, even though they seem perfectly fine outside," said Choi, 65, who was born on Yeonpyeong. "I think they've become more sensitive because of the sudden loss and damage."

The island is dotted with camouflaged marine outposts. Lengths of coast are protected by submerged steel "dragon feet" staves to block invading ships. Since the attack, South Korea bolstered these defenses with sophisticated long-range artillery systems.

"We all know we now have new weapons here. We feel safe on one hand, but we're also afraid that they are preparing for another war," said Choi Ok-seon, who runs a homestay program on the island.

North Korea does not recognize the maritime line drawn by the U.S.-led U.N. Command at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, technically leaving the peninsula in a state of war.

North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial Friday that deployments on Yeonpyeong Island are proof that "warlike South Korean forces are moving to mount a military provocation."

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said Friday that South Korea's "military has been gnashing its teeth with rage over the past year ... and we have to sternly punish an enemy provocation."

Despite the heated rhetoric, there are tentative moves toward diplomacy, with officials from the two Koreas, along with the United States, discussing ways to resume talks aimed a swapping aid for the North's nuclear disarmament.

People here grew up hearing North Korean claims to the waters around their island. They are used to violent sea battles between the rival navies. But last year's attack, targeting civilian areas as well as military installations, was a violent awakening.

Kim Sang-eun, a Vietnam War veteran, can't erase memories of the shelling that left an inn he owns a pile of rubble.

"I lost everything in one day, so I can't forget about it," the 66-year-old said. "Now I don't have confidence in anything."


AP writer Jiyoung Won contributed to this story. Follow Foster Klug on Twitter at and Hyung-jin Kim at