28 Nov 2010
It is a scene of utter destruction: the lives of a tiny community of fishermen and farmers shattered in a hail of artillery fire.
Their tight-knit community – homes, stores and public buildings – has become a scene of war, with structures burned, flattened and destroyed. Those left standing are a testament to the indiscriminate nature of the North Korean shelling that turned an ordinary Tuesday workday for Yeonpyeong islanders into a flight for their lives.
Today the town lies almost empty amid fears among the evacuees that the US-South Korean joint military drills starting today in the disputed waters around the island’s shores will place them squarely in the firing line in further attacks.
The North has threatened “annihilation” – and the islanders are taking no chances. Their fears appeared to have been vindicated on Friday afternoon when more artillery fire was reported in the waters north of Yeonpyeong – but it was later said to be a training exercise that did not breach the South.
In one scene, a woman ran for her life to an air raid shelter. Inside, an elderly woman wiped away tears. A younger woman, appearing to lose patience, rifled aimlessly through a basket of clothing.
It is a desperate attempt by the North to save itself.
Earlier on Friday, an exodus saw dozens pour off boats at Incheon, about 40 miles west of Seoul on the mainland, carrying the possessions that were left intact after the shelling.
Some had been evacuated in the wake of the blasts, only to hurriedly return when ferry services restarted, to scoop up what they could.
“I feel like I have lost my hometown – everything,” said Lim Bok-shik, 45, as he disembarked at Incheon on Friday afternoon from a ferry from the island, unsure if he will ever return.
Another four islands along this part of the disputed North Korea-South Korea maritime border joined the evacuation in a fit of panic, fearing they too could be drawn in to the “real war” North Korea has interpreted today’s planned drills as representing.
“Because of the drill, I cannot live here any more,” said one elderly woman escaping Baengnyeong Island, the outcrop close to the spot where the South Korean navy vessel Cheonan was sunk apparently by the North. “North Korea is taking this very seriously.
“I have come with my grandchildren, but my son and his wife are still there because they work as civil servants. They can’t come because they have to work, so we had to say goodbye.”
On Tuesday, the North’s main aim was supposedly to strike at the heart of the island’s 1000-strong marine base. They may have succeeded – but there was collateral damage; two civilians were killed as well as two marines.
The ugly plumes of smoke that billowed into the skies above the tiny outcrop as the one-hour barrage unfolded robbed the 1,700 civilian population of their normal lives. Though the fires have now been doused, the fear of another attack has made the island an eerie ghost town. Only a few hardy souls remained.
For today’s younger generation of South Koreans, this is a frightening new method of provocation – the last time shells rained down on a town on South Korean land, it was the early 1950s and the two countries were entrenched in a bloody conflict that claimed the lives of millions.
As many as 200 artillery rounds were lobbed over Yeonpyeong from batteries dug deep into the rocky face of the North’s southern coast just seven miles away. About 50 made landfall, damaging up to 80 homes and buildings and engulfing pockets in flames and thick black smoke.
Women and children, the elderly and the infirm, were either running for their lives or being helped to safety as explosions ripped around them during the North’s bombardment.
The counter-attack on Northern positions involved about 80 rounds, though the damage and casualties incurred remain unknown.
As images of the artillery fire besieging Yeonpyeong started to filter through to the South Korean capital, the normally slick city dwellers were reduced to gasping “Oh-tuh-kay” – “Oh my God” – in their shock.
This time, it seemed, North Korea had crossed into hitherto uncharted territory. Yet while the South was reporting an unprovoked attack, the North insisted it had been fired upon first.
“The emergency alert made me realise that the scenes broadcast on television are in fact for real,” said Jeon Seung-wook, 29, a native of Incheon, the South Korean port city nearest the island. “I fear that the situation may expand and get worse.”
The greater Seoul area, which includes Incheon, is home to about half of the country’s 48.5 million population. They are used to an increasingly affluent, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and have in recent decades taken North Korean provocations in their stride. But this time was different. This time civilians, rather than only military personnel, were involved.
As the week has progressed, however, a fresh calm has descended over the capital. Though it is now beginning to dawn on them that North Korea’s brinkmanship may have reached a new zenith of unpredictability, many in South Korea have reassumed a somewhat flippant tone towards the situation.
Lee Tae-hoon, 45, from Seoul, said: “I was in shock. But I am used to it happening annually. It is a desperate attempt by the North to save itself.”
Those who got an up-close-and-personal vantage point on just how indiscriminate the shelling was see things differently.
One middle-aged islander said: “A large number of villagers are thinking of leaving Yeonpyeong Island.”
And the brief words of Ko Young-hae, 86, who has lived on the island all her life, summed up the general feeling of relief: “I am OK. I’m alive and I have survived.”
Tim Peters, a Seoul-based advocate for North Korean refugees, says what the islanders witnessed should serve as warning to those who take the North lightly. He said: “Many people walking the streets have a ‘ho-hum’ attitude and barely break the pace of their walk to see the news. That could be misplaced because we are not exactly in the same paradigm that we were before.”
Likewise, some foreign residents sense shifting sands. Canadian bar owner Dwayne Robertson, 44, who lives just metres from a US army garrison in the heart of the South Korean capital, says he packed an emergency evacuation kit to be prepared should the unthinkable occur and Seoul come under attack.
And Niels Footman, 36, a public relations consultant from Edinburgh now living in Seoul, reckons that people are angrier than when the Cheonan went down, and are feeling a heightened hint of tension.
The why of this particular conflagration is at the core of the near-global condemnation. Familiar scenarios have been rolled out: it was an attempt by North Korea to shore up domestic support for the power transfer from Kim Jong-il to his son Jong-un; the artillery fire was a hopeful ploy to re-start the six-party talks aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsula; it was linked to the dispute over the nearby maritime border; the Kim regime is unsatisfied with the level of aid it is currently able to extract; it was responding to the flak it took for its recent revelations over the country’s bolstered nuclear facilities; and, most worryingly of all, the deed was carried out by rogue elements within the military, the sign of an internal power struggle.
But Brian Myers, the South Korea-based author of a book exploring the North Korean propaganda machine, argues this incident must be viewed through the prism of the regime’s stated military first policy. More than anything else, he says, it is the regime’s raison d’être.
“It is not a transition period to see the country through difficult times,” he said. “It is enshrined in the constitution. It has replaced communism as the ideology, the other being ‘juche’ [self-reliance].
“More importantly, the military-nuclear arena is the only place where the North Korean government has achieved any kind of success.
“Just as western democracies have to ensure steady economic growth to stay in power, the North Korean government has to show a steady stream of victories or humiliation of the enemies, so that the absence of economic comforts is worth it.”
A growing chorus of South Koreans are criticising the length of time it took for the South to launch a counter-attack – it took about 13 minutes for its barrage of rounds to commence. Many are demanding a powerful military response, calling on President Lee Myung-bak to act with far greater force.
Lee initially pled for cautious steps, but has since been bolder with his words, warning the North that any further provocations would lead to stronger action. He has since bolstered forces and weaponry in the maritime border area.
Amid the public outcry, however, defence minister Kim Tae-young resigned. He has been replaced in the post by Kim Kwan-jin, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on the Korean peninsula who is based in Seoul, voices sentiments that echo the critics. He points to the history of flashpoints and incursions made by the North across the demilitarised zone, rejecting the idea that this time the North had “crossed the line”.
There was the 1968 attack and assassination attempt on the presidential palace and then president Park Chung-hee, he says, and the 1996 submarine landing loaded with well-armed commandos and their subsequent slaughter of civilians.
Recent messages sent to both the US and the South about the North’s apparently bolstered nuclear capability are clear, Lankov says. “The message is essentially the same: ‘We should not be ignored and we can make serious trouble for you and you should listen to us.’”
Figuring in this mix too, though, is China. Once again, momentum is gaining for Beijing – widely seen as the North’s best friend and enabler – to rein in the Kim regime. However, its lukewarm reaction to the assault on Yeonpyeong suggests that it is likely to stick to the tack it took after the Cheonan incident: speaking in terms of neutrality and refusing to point the finger of blame.
Meanwhile, the true human cost of the Yeonpyeong tragedy is being forensically picked over. Boat services began again towards the end of the week and the media started to pore over the wreckage.
Some of the household goods, the mementoes of ordinary lives turned to ash, revealed themselves: the wreckage of a piano, broken kitchenware, piles of burned books, children’s toys. Inconsistently positioned, the burned-out alleyways and giant craters in the ground told of a frenzied attack.
Though these islanders lived in the knowledge they were in potentially dangerous territory, like many South Koreans they stoically carried on with their ordinary lives. They have now been cruelly shattered.
Yet, for some, the threat before Tuesday’s ordeal was that bit more real. They are the crab fishermen who make up a large proportion of the island communities, in recent times caught in the middle of three nearby and bloody naval battles between the two Koreas – the most recent last November.
Earlier in 2009, they told of fears of an impending catastrophe. Detailing their frustration, they said they were unable to motor to the best stretches in the crab-rich waters because they are too close to the fiercest topic of dispute in the area: the maritime border.
Yeonpyeong lies about 40 miles from Incheon. Those from Baengnyeong joining the exodus are more than double that distance from the port city. Occupying a similar but more isolated position on the frontline, had the shelling occurred there, the mass evacuation of a far larger population – about 4,500 – would probably have made this a far greater tragedy. It too is a fishing community, and, like their island brothers and sisters from Yeonpyeong and the other exposed outcrops, they are now in Incheon shelters, unsure of what their future holds.