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Korean crisis: Can Yeonpyeong fishermen cope in suburban Seoul?

A month after North's shelling, Yeonpyeong residents face uncertain future far from home.

Yeonpyeong Island South Korea
South Koreans were evacuated to a bomb shelter during a military drill on Yeonpyeong Island, Dec. 20, 2010. (Korea Pool/Getty Images)

GIMPO CITY, South Korea — When North Korea attacked Yeonpyeong in November, it dashed more than four lives and scores of homes on the tiny island in the Yellow Sea. The North also took from the people of Yeonpyeong a way of life — at least for the time being.

After the attack, hundreds of the island's 1,400 residents fled to the mainland, where they have since lived in a state of limbo. Initially, they slept on the floor of a public bathhouse. And now, a month on, the government has relocated about 1,000 of the island's residents to vacant, unfurnished housing units in Gimpo City, a suburb of Seoul.

For this fishing community, the question now is not whether they will be attacked again, but how to cope far from home, in alien, suburban surroundings.

The odds appear stacked against them. The temporary housing is located in an underdeveloped area with little but an airport and large construction sites in its vicinity. The area lacks the density and busy street life common in South Korea. It is full of open fields being turned into housing complexes and highways. The air smells of concrete and asphalt. It is a 20-minute drive from the nearest subway station and buses are infrequent. Yeonpyeong evacuees are to remain there for a minimum of two months.

Choe Nam-bu, a middle-aged restaurant worker, had spent two days in Gimpo and felt uneasy in her new dwellings. “I didn’t want to come here but felt as if I had no other choice. I want to go back but we need the government to ensure that it will be safe for us,” Choe said.

Gimpo is home to one of the manufactured communities common in South Korea. The country’s population is heavily concentrated in Seoul; the government has designed several of these satellite cities to ease congestion in the capital. Thus far, the communities have failed to take root due to their distance from jobs and amenities.

The location’s unattractiveness is one of the reasons the Yeonpyeong residents have ended up there. The complex belongs to the Land and Housing Corporation, a heavily indebted state-owned enterprise that has undertaken many large development projects that have failed to find tenants.

There were plenty of empty units in the Gimpo housing complex on a recent visit. Residents will be responsible for rental payments while living there.

"We are doing our best to help the residents tide over the winter, " a county official told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Besides rent payments, boredom appears one of the refugees' biggest problems. Residents have no television or newspaper delivery. “We have no information about what is happening in the world,” Jo Heung-jun, an elderly fisherman, said. “We’d be more content if we had some way of keeping up with what is going on. We don’t even know if there will be another attack. My heart is telling me to go back, but my mind says no.”

Residents commonly express desire to return to the predictability and self-sufficiency of the time before the attack. Jo said, “I work to eat; I do everything by hand. Having left, there’s nothing, not a single thing for us to do. That’s the tough thing.”