Summit scepticism on bombarded South Korean island

Summit scepticism on bombarded South Korean island

Yeonpyeong (South Korea) (AFP) – When a North Korean artillery shell slammed into her house and blew up the top floor in 2010, Kim Soon-ok ran barefoot into the street, terrified and screaming that war had broken out.

The barrage of rounds on the island of Yeonpyeong eight years ago killed four people and reduced homes to smouldering ruins in the North’s first attack on civilians since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Residents still tremble at the memory and voice bitter suspicion of Pyongyang ahead of an inter-Korean summit on Friday.

“Whenever I hear a loud thump, I check outside by reflex,” said cafe owner Kim. “I always go to bed with a bag packed just in case.”

The island’s 2,200 residents live just 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from a disputed maritime border with the North. 

The Northern Limit Line (NLL) is not recognised by Pyongyang, which argues it was unilaterally drawn by the US-led United Nations forces after the war. 

The boundary was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009.  The North said its November 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyeong was in response to South Korean shells falling in its territorial waters.

A banner hanging loosely by an island roadside reads: “The bombardment of Yeonpyeong will be tolerated by neither God nor man.”

– ‘We will all die’ –

On a clear day, white concrete buildings and grey huts in North Korea are visible from a mountain top on Yeonpyeong. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has inspected the unit on Mu islet responsible for the bombardment several times, honouring it with the title of “Hero Defence Detachment” and calling the 2010 incident “the most delightful battle”. 

In a stunning turn of events, Kim will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday for what will be just the third inter-Korean summit since the end of the war.

Residents welcome signs of easing threats of war on their doorstep, but remain unconvinced about North Korea’s intentions.

“They spent the last 60, 70 years making things to kill people… to bombard people and torpedo ships,” said 80-year-old Park Dong-ik.

They view the current rapprochement as superficial and fear that another conflict could erupt at any moment.

Kim Sung-ja, another resident, added that while the current situation seemed peaceful, “who knows what they will do afterwards”.

“If they were to bombard us today, there is nothing we can do,” she said. “We will all die.” 

– Danger zone –

Every corner of Yeonpyeong holds a grim reminder of its proximity with North Korea and the deadly attack.

Seoul has stationed extra troops and weaponry on the island, with military posts scattered throughout, and the sounds of practice artillery fire frequently reverberate.

Education sessions on emergency evacuation are a regular event, usually held at one of a handful of bunkers.

The gates to the island’s beaches are shuttered at 6pm, and soldiers patrol the shore in search of explosives that may have drifted from the North.

And at the centre of Yeonpyeong village, two houses shelled in 2010 have been preserved as an education centre and macabre tourist attraction, including rusty burned bikes and slabs of smashed concrete stairs.

But residents lament that the bombardment has scared away tourists for the past eight years, and two of the three ferry companies that used to run to the island have dropped the route, leaving only one boat a day.

Some hope the summit could dispel outsiders’ fears about visiting.

But 68-year-old fisherman Kim Young-sik, who was born and raised on the island, said: “Yeonpyeong-do is very well known worldwide.

“It has gained a reputation as a danger zone.”