On the eve of South Korean live-fire drills that North Korea vows to answer with "merciless strikes," desperate Yeonpyeong Islanders are fleeing their homes for the second time in a month. Some stopped at a local church to make one final prayer for their hometown before boarding a boat for mainland South Korea.
As they packed up and made for the harbor, the threat of further artillery strikes on this frontline South Korean outcrop seemed to hang perilously in the mist that concealed neighbor and enemy, North Korea.
Despite threats by the North, South Korea vowed again Sunday to proceed with planned live-fire drills off Yeonpyeong Island either Monday or Tuesday.
“I am afraid what might happen when the drills start,” says Park Mee-young as she scooped up her two young sons, gathered some belongings, and headed for the ferry terminal after the church service ended.
Plucky few now fleeing for their lives
Ms. Park is one of the plucky few residents who returned after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island, killing two soldiers and two civilians in the worst attack on its neighbor since 1953.
Now they're all heading out while they still can.
About a dozen took part in the emotionally charged gathering inside a hall adjacent to the church, which saw almost every one of its windows blown out in last month’s attack.
For one woman, the pall that hangs over the island’s future was too much. Overcome with emotion, she struggled to contain her tears, using her fingertips to wipe away streams running down her cheeks.
Outside, the village remains a wreck. In the aftermath of the tragedy, few islanders returned – most preferring the safety of a public bathhouse in the nearest port of Incheon to the ruins dotted around the main island settlement.
Garbage mounts, abandoned pets continue to roam free, and crumbling buildings have folded in on themselves. The deserted homes, stores, and restaurants still standing after the blasts lie in varying states of disrepair.
Like the church, many of the buildings that escaped a direct shelling or the raging fires that followed had windows blown out. Mercifully, the island schools survived the worst elements of the strikes.
Armed marines patrol the streets on foot and in jeeps. Barbed wire now creeps into sections of the civilian area belying the South Korean government’s hope that the nearly 1,500 population will soon return to resume normal life.
'No one wants to come back'
“I don’t want to leave, I have my fishing business here,” says fishing boat captain Kim Jong-hui shortly before boarding the boat to Incheon.
Sporting the kind of tough grimace molded at sea under consistent exposure to salt air and the elements, he said he was being forced to take flight because of the drills – and the lack of hired help on the island.
“My fish farm is damaged and I cannot find workers," says Mr. Kim. "It is so dangerous here now, no one wants to come back.”
Farmers, too, are poised to flee. Busy preparing to sell the last of the season’s rice harvest, some of them say they will ship out as soon as their work is complete.
Yet, others are prepared to brave the latest threats.
“I left when they attacked the first time and came back a week ago, but I’m not going to leave this time,” says 89-year-old Choi Kyoung-hee, her smile at odds with the state of village she has lived in her entire life. “But if they are going to do the drill, they should just get it over with so we can restart our lives. All I want is peace for all the Yeonpyeong people as soon as possible.”