South Korean islanders living under the shadow of the North’s guns dream of a peaceful future
Yeonpyeong, a small island just 12km from the North Korean coast, still bears the scars of a deadly 2010 artillery attack but residents there hope the latest meeting between the two sides can bring them a sense of security
Eight years on from the surprise attack, the South Korean island’s unhealed scars are still visible in the form of shattered houses, broken furniture and burnt tree stumps.
In November 2010, residents of Yeonpyeong, an island in the Yellow Sea that lies just 12km (seven miles) from the North Korean coast, ran out of their houses screaming in terror as an artillery barrage opened up without warning, killing four people – two of them civilians – and wounding 60.
The decision to preserve signs of the damage is the islanders’ way of remembering the attack, in which 292 buildings were damaged and 47 hectares of forest set on fire.
Next to the shattered concrete walls and the debris piled outside the skeletal remains of buildings in Yeonpyeong-ri, a two-storey “security education centre” has been built to commemorate the events.
The exhibition centre does not just commemorate the 2010 attack – it also recalls a string of North Korean provocations, including two deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002 and the sinking of the warship Cheonan, with the loss of 46 sailors.
But despite its history and the tremendous tension that living so close to the North generates, the islanders are keen to give peace another chance.
Hopes that the two sides could be reconciled were rising ahead of Tuesday’s meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas in Pyongyang, where plans to ease military tensions were expected to be up for discussion.
Last week, Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean national security adviser, told the Seoul Defence Dialogue that the two militaries were discussing ways to demilitarise disputed border areas.
Chung said that they had discussed ways to transform the disputed western sea border – including Yeonpyeong – as a “peace zone” to ease maritime military tensions.
Still, a South Korean parliamentary source told the South China Morning Post that while negotiations about the demilitarised zone were going well, the two Koreas remain largely divided on the issue of establishing a Yellow Sea Peace Zone.
“Establishing a peace zone is a matter of survival to us,” Park Chun-geun, a fisherman on the island, said. “The agreement would make us feel much more secure when we go out to the open sea … No one would be more eager than us to establish peace here on the Korean peninsula.”
Min Dong-suk, a local resident, also said, “The government must try its best. We don’t want to live under this tension any more. I hope there can be a significant deal made by the two leaders.”
Myriad signs dotted around the island remind the 2,200 or so residents they are only 1.5km away from the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which marks the northern maritime boundary between the two.
The demarcation line was drawn up as part of the armistice agreement that brought the fighting in the Korean war to a close in 1953 and leaves five islands, including Yeonpyeong, under the control of the South – although the North has never accepted the maritime frontier.
The island is just 12km from the North’s coastline whereas the major Southern port of Incheon is more than 83km away, which means it has been heavily fortified to protect it from its hostile neighbour.
Hundreds of trenches, coastal artilleries and armed vehicles can be seen around the island, and hundreds of service personnel from the marines, navy and coastguard have been stationed there.
The coastline is guarded by multiple “dragon’s teeth”, giant underwater metal spikes pointing out to sea that are intended to stop the North landing troops there.
A multitude of bomb shelters are another reminder of the continuing threat the islanders live under.
In the number one shelter, designed to hold up to 533 people, there are showers, dining rooms and even a cottage hospital.
Nine kilometres away from the education centre, a memorial park honours the servicemen who died in the artillery park and during the second battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002.
Faces of five men who died in the naval battle and the two who died in the artillery attack have been engraved on metal plaques, while a memorial tower for the latter two, Sergeant Seo Jeong-woo and Lance-Corporal Moon Gwang-wook, contains the words: “Please be the guardians of peace in heaven and look after us.”
The North Korean province of Hwanghae is visible to the naked eye from the memorial tower.
Closer to the island’s northern coast, Manghyang observatory offers an even clearer view of the North, including the islands of Gabdo and Jangjaedo, just 5km and 7km away, as well as houses, factories and even the propaganda slogans on the mainland.
The observatory – whose name means “homesick” – also expresses the Korean people’s deep sorrow about the continuing separation of the peninsula.
It contains an altar for the traditional Confucian rites to honour ancestors who were not able to return to their homes, while a poem written on the altar reads: “I want to be in my hometown when I get old.”