South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island one year after North Korea's attack

Residents of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island are confident enough to return to one year after North Korea's devastating attack, but still nervous.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A general view shows Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, Tuesday. 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 on the island since the war, and catapulting the neighbors to the brink of a new all-out conflict.

The sounds of artillery shells still send shockwaves through the streets of the little village by the sea where most of this remote island’s 2,000 residents make their homes.

“Whenever there’s a defense drill, people are scared,” says Park Mi-ae, who runs a small restaurant on the narrow main street of the village. “And if there’s an aftershock,” an echo, she says, “people are totally terrified.”

Everyone on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island – just a few miles off the coast of North Korea – knows the South Korean marines stationed here fire off shells periodically for practice, but no one can forget the North's devastating attack one year ago Nov. 23. Most residents fled in panic after 180 shells rained down on the island, killing two marines and two civilian workers.

By now, though, most have returned, their confidence buoyed by a beefed-up South Korean security presence. The marines have tripled their numbers on the island, from 500 to 1,500. They patrol day and night and have placed many more tanks and artillery pieces within easy range of North Korea.

The added military might here – and on half a dozen other islands in the Yellow Sea off the North’s southwestern coast – helps explain why the North does not seem likely to stage a repetition of last year’s attack, at least in the near future.

“Repeated provocations would bring a harsh response from the South,” says Kim Suk-woo, a former vice minister of unification, responsible for South Korea’s off-again, on-again dealings with North Korea. “They could not seek a provocation at this moment.” Still, he adds, “They are seeking the chance.”

Pressure from China

If the atmosphere seems calm, one reason is assumed to be pressure from North Korea’s only major friend and ally, China.

Chinese leaders have never criticized North Korea for attacking this island, or for torpedoing the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March of last year, killing 46 sailors, but China’s desire for “stability” presumably is sending a message to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, and his third son and designated heir, Kim Jong-un, believed to have spurred on last year’s incidents to demonstrate his rising power.

“The world is closely watching,” says Cho Won-il, a former South Korean ambassador to Vietnam. “China is very likely to tell North Korea not to try anything,” he goes on, while South Korea ’s President Lee Myung-bak “has been reiterating warnings.”

The result, says Mr. Cho, is that “ North Korea has been retreating.”

Memories still fresh

These assurances, though, are less than convincing to those who lived through last year’s attack and worry most about its happening again.

"I don’t want to remember it,” says Lee Won-gun, digging for oysters and clams during low tides in the long afternoons. “After the attack I went to Incheon” – the major port city about 70 miles east of here. “I did not come back until February. I am still nervous about North Korea.”

Ms. Lee gets most nervous when she hears the occasional distant rumble of North Korean cannon, carefully hidden in redoubts that South Korean marines failed to touch when they fired about 80 shells back at the North during the attack. “This place is exposed,” she says.

The only reason so few people were killed in the attack last year, say villagers, is that North Korean gunners fired when most people were out during low tide digging for oysters and clams. The cost in lives lost would be far higher if the North Koreans were to attack at high tide.

Choe Kyu-yu, in a shop down the street at the time, escaped without a scratch but worries the North Koreans will strike again, perhaps on the anniversary of the attack. “I saw the shells,” he says. “We don’t know why they attack. They have their own reasons. Perhaps they want to occupy this island.”

People are constantly reminded of two bloody battles in nearby waters in which North Korean vessels crossed the Northern Limit Line, the marker on maps below which North Korean boats are banned. North Korea refuses to recognize the line, set by the US and South Korea three years after the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.

Peace Park, atop a promontory with a clear view of the North Korean shoreline, memorializes those battles.

The park is “a place to mourn the spirits that died in the heroic battle for our country,” says a plaque honoring six sailors killed in June 2002 by a North Korean patrol boat. Another plaque honors the South Korean navy’s “heroic victory” in June 1999 when “the North Korean naval force intruded” and a North Korean vessel was sunk with a number of sailors on board.

Lee Myung-seok, a one-time North Korean navy officer who escaped from the North via China several years ago and defected to South Korea, doubts North Korea is strong enough militarily to seriously threaten the island.

“The North Korean people are told they have to respond to South Korean provocations,” she says, “but many are starving and throw away their rifles.”

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