Korea's islands in the storm

Talks began Sept. 8 after North Korea unilaterally moved its sea border

A lush hill of pine trees floats above terraced rice paddies, quiet coves, and a village of low houses facing the sea.

It would be idyllic, if not for the battleships, the communications towers, and a battalion of soldiers.

As the closest South Korean island to North Korea - a Communist naval base is visible just a few miles distant - soldiers, not fishermen, inhabit most of the territory.

The stakes were raised for Yonpyong and the rest of Korea last week. North Korea laid claim to the waters around this and four other South Korean islands by unilaterally moving the inter-Korean border in the Yellow Sea many miles southward.

North Korea claims the original sea border was made arbitrarily by South Korea. South Korea responds that the line has separated forces on the most militarized border on earth for 46 years and should not be tampered with now.

The Yellow Sea border was established unilaterally by the United Nations months after signing an armistice that ended the fighting, but not the war, in 1953. North Korea has tacitly abided by the border until now, but never officially sanctioned it.

If a new Korean War erupts, it could begin here. On June 15, the first major fighting since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War broke out nearby. South Korean forces sank a North Korean ship and damaged five others that had intruded into southern waters. About 30 North Koreans were killed, and some South Korean soldiers were injured. "I could hear shots in the distance. I got scared and hid by the docks," says Kim Jin Hwa, an elderly restaurant owner.

But most of the island's 1,350 civilian inhabitants seem unconcerned. As soldiers unload gear and move about clumps of wild sunflowers and stone fences, fishermen sort the day's catch on the decks of creaky wooden boats.

"We've been fishing here for all our life, and North Korea is talking this nonsense," says Byun Jin Shik, as he disentangles crabs from his nets.

"The Korean Army and Navy are stationed here. It's not dangerous to go fishing anywhere. I even went out fishing when the fighting was going on. The news broadcasts were all exaggerated. Everyone thought we were going to die," he says.

Even Mrs. Kim, who ran to hide, says that soon after the shooting started she had so many journalists to feed that she "didn't have time to worry."

But it is hard to forget where one is. The families of soldiers regularly call Kim's restaurant to ask if things are OK on the island - the military base does not take direct calls. The ferry here always has a military escort, and musty concrete bunkers are scattered throughout the village. Northern propaganda fliers sometimes wash up on the beach, which is strewn with obstacles to prevent an amphibious assault.

There is no curfew on Yonpyong Island, and residents easily get past the many military roadblocks. But a four-hour ferry ride from Inchon, the nearest seaport, is isolating. Bad weather can shut down service for a week at a time. Young people often move to the mainland for work. Many defected from North Korea during the war and settled after hopes of a quick reunification faded.

"We were rich and had lots of land [in North Korea]. We were planing to go back and claim our things," Kim says.

Since the June 15 naval battle, North Korea's military has called a series of border meetings with generals from the United Nations Command (UNC), which helps defend South Korea. The UNC refused to discuss the Yellow Sea border, saying it should be talked about with South Korea. Exasperated after the last talks broke down, North Korea unilaterally declared a new line Sept. 2, saying it would defend the sea border with "various means and methods."

Military analysts long have said that instead of starting an all-out war, North Korea might seize one of the islands in the Yellow Sea in order to win concessions at the bargaining table.

But no one knows why North Korea declared a new border now.

Some Korea-watchers think Pyongyang was creating a bargaining chip or intentionally raising tensions ahead of talks with the United States this week. In Berlin, American diplomats are trying to persuade North Korea not to test launch a new long-range missile.

Others think North Korea wants access to nearby fishing grounds to support its starving population. Another theory says that North Korea was so embarrassed by its defeat in the last naval battle that military officials are preparing to avenge themselves.

Still others say that there is no overall strategy - that North Korea's monolithic system has broken down into competing interest groups unable to cooperate with one another and steer the nation. While the foreign ministry negotiates abroad, the military makes such claims. The people set up autonomous farmers markets - or starves.

American officials say they won't negotiate the border this week in Berlin. But some observers say that North Korea actually may have a legitimate claim, if belated.

South Korea has vowed to defend the original line. But "if South Korea and North Korea insist on their different positions, the ultimate outcome is inevitable. There will be some armed collision ... This whole issue will not simply pass away without some kind of bloodshed on the Yellow Sea," says a North Korea watcher.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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