Korean crisis: Yeonpyeong changed forever?

YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea —  When she isn’t fussing over the foreign guests at her immaculate home, Baek Soo-nyu displays the steely look of a woman who is accustomed to adversity.

The 80-year-old fled from her native North Korea at the end of the Korean War in 1953 to build a new life on Yeonpyeong. Her current home, an isolated, windswept island just south of the disputed maritime border dividing the two Koreas, is now the focus of a regional crisis that has prompted fears of a second war between the communist North and capitalist South. Today, the South launched a three-day naval drill despite the North's warnings of retaliation.

In the early afternoon of Nov. 23, the country of her birth returned to haunt Baek as she sat eating lunch. Without warning, North Korea aimed 170 artillery shells at Yeonpyeong, apparently in response to live fire drills conducted by the island’s South Korean Marine Corps.

The bombs destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, prompting an exodus to Incheon, a South Korean city 50 miles to the east.

It was the first time civilians had been targeted since the end of the Korean War, and served as a reminder that this island, just 7.5 miles from the North Korean coastline, remains on the frontline of a cold-war conflict that defies resolution, almost 60 years after the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel.

When the first shell struck, Baek thought it was thunder.

“I wanted to look out of the window, but everything started to shake and I felt like the house was spinning," she told GlobalPost at her home, located meters from where the bombs landed. “I ran around looking for a safe spot, shouting for help. I was so scared.”

By the time the bombing had ended, two South Korean marines and two islanders were dead. The attack plunged the region into crisis, amid fears that the armistice that has kept the peninsula relatively peaceful for 57 years was about to break.

Yeonpyeong was an easy target for Pyongyang, lying perilously close to the Northern Limit Line, a maritime border on the peninsula’s west coast that, since the 1990s, the regime has refused to recognize.

The marine base, which was among the targets, lies out of bounds to civilians, along the island’s north coast. In a show of strength designed to placate South Koreans critical of the way the president, Lee Myung Bak, has handled the crisis, Yeonpyeong was this week the scene for another round of live-fire drills. This time, however, the region breathed easy after North Korea, despite earlier threats to retaliate, said there was “no point” responding to South Korean “reckless provocation” with more firepower.

But that will come as little comfort to Baek, who along with other residents was forced to spend the day in one of the island’s 18 air-raid shelters.

The view across the street from her home is a chilling reminder of how fortunate she is to be alive. The nearby motel she once ran is a blackened shell, and other bomb-damaged buildings stretch the length of the street. Only North Korea’s decision to bomb in the early afternoon, when most islanders were out working, prevented the civilian death toll from climbing much higher.

Moments after the attack, two neighbors arrived to carry Baek to the closest bomb shelter, where she was given blankets and sedatives. “I was so traumatized I could barely speak,” she said. She spent two weeks on the mainland with her family, who all live in Incheon, but decided to return to Yeonpyeong, where her only company is a handful of remaining neighbors and her television.

“I am scared, but I don’t think North Korea is going to attack again,” she said. “But I am still frightened whenever I hear a loud noise.”

Choi Chung-young shudders when he recalls the moment he realized his home had been targeted by North Korea. As an employee of the local government, Choi has had to remain on Yeonpyeong while his family takes refuge on the mainland.

“I think it’s important that the residents come back to the island. It can only function properly again if they return,” he said.

“I feel nervous, but I’m a government employee so I have no choice but to stay here. I can’t sleep well at night. I witnessed the attack. I saw and heard shells exploding right next to me. I would leave if I could and join my family.”

Almost a month on from the attack, Yeonpyeong is practically deserted. Of the 1,400 residents, fewer than 100 remain. Many are town office officials and construction workers helping with the rebuilding effort, plus a large number of South Korean journalists. Rubbish piles up on the streets, and stray dogs roam in search of scraps of food, shivering in the freezing temperatures.

The few remaining residents said the shelling has all but ruined the strong sense of community the island once enjoyed.

“I feel suffocated,” said Park Mi-gyong, the wife of the Yeonpyeong’s pastor, as she emerges from the town office with her two young children. “There is no school, so the children have nothing to do, and I am stuck in the house all day. Our routine has been destroyed.”

That said, there are signs that life is slowly returning to normal. On the day GlobalPost took the two-hour ferry ride across choppy seas back to Incheon, the first fishing boat to have ventured out since the attack returned to port with a catch of crabs, a local speciality.

As soldiers, police officers and a handful of civilians braved the driving snow to catch the ferry back to the mainland, Kim Chung Gee was mulling a long stay on the island helping supply water to the military.

“I don’t know if I’m scared or not, but it’s certainly inconvenient,” said Kim, 65. "I‘m not sleeping well, and most of the stores are closed.”

Kim, whose children live in Seoul, is confident the North will not attack again, but concedes that last month’s shelling has changed his island home for good.

“I’m not 100 percent sure the island will ever get back to normal,” he said.

Other islanders are more philosophical about the future. “This is my home, and I want to stay here,” said Ra Jae-kyung, 46, who sent his son to the mainland but stayed on Yeonpyeong to help rebuild damaged homes. “I’m hoping that North Korea won’t attack again, but there’s always tension in the air. If I’m lucky, I’ll live. If not, I’ll die.

His is a sentiment shared by Baek, who is unequivocal in her condemnation of the country she and all of her immediate relatives fled when she was in her 20s.

“The North Korean government is evil and should not have chosen this aggressive path,” she said. “Now the whole world hates them because of their actions. I no longer feel any emotional attachment to North Korea.”