After North Korean attack, South Korean island empties out

After North Korean artillery showered this island in the Yellow Sea Tuesday, locals say they're fearful of North Korea's latest threats of a peninsula 'on the brink of war.'

Lee Jin-man/AP
Police officers patrol near houses destroyed by a North Korean attack on the Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Friday. Yeonpyeong is evacuating its 1,700 residents after North Korea said they were on the 'brink of war.'

The idyllic life on this once-prosperous South Korean island, enriched by the plentiful fish and crabs swarming the embracing waters of the Yellow Sea, may be gone.

People picking through the rubble for whatever they can carry before rushing to the last ferry of the day look back on their lives here with nostalgia.

“I’m very sorry to leave my hometown,” says homemaker Choi In-young. “Once it was paradise, now it’s hell."

Ms. Choi was inside her home when artillery shells from across the eight miles of water between this island and North Korean coastline, easily visible on the skyline roared into the neighborhood Tuesday afternoon. “All the windows in my home were knocked out,” she says. “My home is still safe, but I saw smoke from houses around me.”

For most of Yeonpyeong’s 1,700 residents, the island provided a comfortable living that few on the mainland 40 miles to the east would imagine. Many made small fortunes off the crab that are plentiful in the Yellow Sea, especially at the height of the crabbing season in June. Now the number of inhabitants has dwindled to the 20 or so who refuse to leave.

'Not possible' to live here anymore

Choi Seng-il, head of a citizens’ committee, doubts if more than a handful will want to come back in view of naval exercises starting Sunday in which the US aircraft carrier USS George Washington is leading an American strike force into the Yellow Sea for four days.

“The weather is getting cold, and our houses were destroyed,” he says. “We decided it’s not going to be possible to live here.”

Related: North Korea's 'military first' politics are behind the recent attacks

At a restaurant where the North Korean coastline – and North Korean gunners – are within easy sight, a row of charred barstools in front of a scorched counter reminds a visitor of the good times enjoyed until Tuesday.

Nearby, a narrow street of shattered shops and homes is strewn with shards of blasted glass, twisted walls, and broken roofs.

“I was in my house when the shelling began,” says 80-year-old Chae Suu-yong, grabbing a few pieces of clothing and sticking them into a shopping bag before returning to the daily ferry to Incheon. “We fled to a shelter. We don’t plan to go back.”

Mr. Chae has no doubt the North Koreans mean it when they say the Korean peninsula is “on the brink of war” and more attacks are inevitable.

“The North Koreans will attack again,” he says. “We are really afraid to live here.”

The threat of a repeat attack

For a few minutes Friday afternoon, the fears of a repeat attack seemed to have been confirmed when ears perked up and people dived for cover at the distant sound of artillery shells.

The shells were fired from North Korea, but none landed on the South Korean side of the Northern Limit Line below which North Korean vessels are banned. A South Korean defense ministry official says the North Koreans were sharpening their aim, engaging in target practice – either that or punctuating the rhetoric from Pyongyang Radio.

US General visits, South Korea's president fends off criticism

While locals picked through the rubble, the commander of the 28,000 American troops still in Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, descended on the island in a helicopter. His comments alternated between expressions of sympathy for those killed and wounded in the attack and condemnation of the North Koreans.

While General Sharp was on the island, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak fended off criticism for the feeble response to Tuesday’s artillery barrage. South Korean marine defenders pumped out 80 rounds in the direction of the North Korean coastline from the island’s four operable cannon.

Mr. Lee’s first decisive move was to name a new defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the South Korean armed forces whose resumé shows a series of command positions. Mr. Kim replaces Kim Tae-young, forced out Thursday in a ritual resignation in which he had to “accept responsibility” for the inadequate defense of the island – and possibly that of South Korea’s armed forces in general.

'We don't hate North Koreans'

More than anything else, people here say they miss the ambience of an island that never made the tourist brochures.

“I was planting trees when the bombs were falling,” says Park Yu-san, who moved here from North Korea during the Korean War. “My house was destroyed. I was lucky not to be there. It was very calm here, very beautiful. We loved the life here.”

He says he never had anything against the North Koreans. “We don’t hate them,” he says. “We still don’t hate them.” But now, he says, “I feel they are very cruel.”

Inhabitants consider themselves fortunate that there were not more casualties. Most of the people were out fishing, looking for oysters in the tidal flats or down at the wharf waiting for a boat to come in when the shells began to fall.

A policeman says he had made the grim discovery of the bodies of two civilians who were killed in the barrage. “They were contractors,” he said. “They were working on a construction project.”

From within a waiting ferry, a woman suddenly bursts into heart-rending screams of grief and anger.

“Jung-un, why did you do this, why?” she says, blaming the attack, as many do, on the ambitions of Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent to his father, North Korea’s "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il. “I hate you. Why do you make war? We don’t want to see war.”

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