‘Signs’ that make Korean islanders shiver


I visited the Yeonpyeong Island a few weeks ago and wrote a feature story. I’m glad that Singapore asked me for an English version and here it is:

The below is my original draft of the story. About 2,200 words long.

Take a ferry from the Incheon port and in two and a half hours you will arrive at this small island up north. So small that you can finish a full tour of the island by car less than an hour. 

It looks just like any South Korean island until you notice a heavy military presence. In cars, uniforms and buildings, camouflage is all too common here. As it usually is the case in a military town, even fishers and workers flash camouflage jackets and trousers somehow they acquired. 

The latest record shows that the Yeonpyeong Island has about 2,200 residents. While the Ministry of Defense won’t disclose the actual number of military personnel in the island, villagers say a little less than a half of the registered dwellers are related to the military. 

Take a look from an observatory in the northern end and you will see why. In a clear day you can see the North Korean city of Haeju with your bare eyes. The island is about 100km away from Incheon but less than 40km away from Haeju. 

Four kilometers from the observatory, there is an once-deserted North Korean islet which is so small that you wouldn’t believe that it has rocket artillery launchers deployed by the Korean People’s Army.

This is the islet. It looks much closer when you get to see yourself

‘Dagger to the throat’ 

When the Korean War came to an armistice in 1953, the UN Command agreed to let North Korea take back all the islands in the Yellow Sea it used to claim its sovereignty before the war. Except the five islands including the Yeonpyeong. 

“The US was confident that holding sway over these five islands will guarantee superiority should there be military conflicts in the future,” Ongjin County, which governs the island, says in a report. A former defense minister even spoke of the island as a “dagger to the throat.” (whose throat, you ask?)

The island, however, had been something else before the war. A big thing. It used to have the biggest fishery of yellow croaker, the most endeared fish in the Korean tradition. Thousands of fishing ships gathered around this small island during the season. The villagers say one month’s work back then was enough to support a family over a year. 

This is not what the average South Korean recalls when she thinks of the island now. It’s the smoke and the fire that covered the island by North Korean attack nine years ago. 

In November 2010, the KPA launched artillery attacks to the island right after a Marine Corps artillery deployed in the island finished its regular fire drill. Two soldiers and two civilians were killed. More than a thousand of the residents had to take refuge around Incheon for over three months. 

The bombardment of Yeonpyeong still remains to be the only case in which North Korea deliberately launched an attack to civilians on South Korean soil since the Korean War. 

Kashmir in the sea 

The Yellow Sea may be the closest thing to Kashmir in the Korean peninsula. Many of the inter-Korean military conflict since 2000 have occurred here. 

The major factor was the fact that there is no agreed maritime border between the two Koreas. Indeed there are the Military Demarcation Line and the Demilitarized Zone but they only apply to the land. Both sides of the Korean War couldn’t reach an agreement on what to do with the sea. 

The US, which has been leading the UN Command since the breakout of the war, imposed the Northern Limit Line but its purpose was not to limit the North Korean Navy. The US wanted to keep the leader of the South Syngman Rhee, who adamantly opposed to the armistice from breaking it. 

North Korea, which had far weaker naval forces at the time, had to tolerate the line but after two decades it began to take issues. North Korean Navy ships began to cross the NLL on purpose and from time to time attacked South Korean vessels. 

The level of tension spiked as the new millennium approaches. Two deadly clashes between the North and the South Korean Navies in 1999 and 2002 in the west of the Yeonpyeong Island. Another deadly clash followed in 2009 near the Daechong Island. 

And there was the sinking of ROKS Cheonan in March 2010, eight months before the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. Official investigation by the team of international experts concluded that the South Korean warship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack. 

Military agreement and its violation 

Liberals in South Korea, who are traditionally into improving the inter-Korean relations, have always sought to calm down the tension in the Yellow Sea. President Moon Jae-in’s Panmunjom Declaration with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is the latest effort. 

In its agreement on the military domain, they agreed to “cease all live-fire and maritime maneuver exercise in the zone” which contains the five islands and the sea around them. The two Koreas also agreed “to install covers on the barrels of coastal artilleries and ship guns and close all gunports within the zones.”  

“By making the Korean peninsula into a permanent peace zone, now we can put back our lives into normal,” Mr Moon said as he announces the agreement in 2018. 

A sunset on the island

But in my first evening in the island, I saw red beams of light flying out of a Marine Corps unit to the sky with small drone of the Vulcan anti-aircraft cannon. The villagers said the Marine Corps notified them of further live-fire drills tomorrow involving mortars and the Vulcans. 

They are concerned. 

“We agreed to stop the drills, didn’t we?” Park Tae-won, 59, told me. “But we’re doing it now. Whatever it is… be it mortars or Vulcans. We shouldn’t do that here.” 

A native islander who’s been making a living by fishing for more than three decades, Park has lived through the tensions. Sometimes he was a part of the tension. Yeonpyeong fishers including him was so angered by Chinese fishers overfishing around the island that they attempted to capture their ships several times. 

Does this live-fire drill violatate the inter-Korean military agreement? Technically not, it seems. The Marine Corps unit told me that drills involing weapons of smaller caliber does not violate the agreement. The original Korean version of the agreement says they agreed to cease “artillery fire” not all kinds of weaponry fire. 

Meanwhile, North Korea already violated it without doubt. 


On November 25, North Korean state media reported that a coastal artillery company in the Changrin Islet held a live-fire drill under the guidance of Kim Jong-un. South Korean defense ministry condemned its violation of the agreement. 

All the more reason for the islanders to be concerned. 

“When I take a look back to the past when the bombardment and the battles [of Yeonpyeong] happened, there always had been signs,” Park said. 

“After the signs, it just happens out of blue. Away from where we expected. There was an artillery fire drill in the Changrin Islet and a few days later a North Korean ship crossed the line [NLL] again.” 

On November 27, two days after the report of the Changrin Islet artillery fire, a North Korean civilian vessel crossed the NLL and roamed around what South Korea considers to be its territorial waters for almost 20 hours. 

South Korean Joint Chief of Staff said the vessel is known to have drifted due to weather and malfunctions but according to local media reports, the vessel didn’t respond to South Korean Navy’s repeated request to identify herself. Only after the Navy fired warning shots it went back beyond the line. 

“This makes me very anxious,” Park said. “It makes me think that they could make some problem again at any moment.” 

Park has every rights to be concerned. Just before the First Battle of Yeonpyeong, North Korea sent its Navy vessels and fishing boats across the NLL over a week. The Second Battle occurred when two North Korean Navy vessels crossed the line and launched an attack without warning to South Korean Navy vessels which came to intercept them. 

Memories of the bombardment 

Without doubt, what really makes the people nervous is the haunting memories of the bombardment. 

“When I came to my senses after we evacuated I looked over what I actually brought with me,” Ms Kang, who wishes to remain anonymous in her late 40s, told me. 

“I came to realize that I only brought one winter jacket I was wearing and two pairs of socks for my babies.” 

Those who were not lucky enough to have relatives who can readily offer place to stay after evacuation had to improvise. Even the government had nothing to offer at the moment. Some chose to stay at motels. Others had to stay in a public bathhouse (called jjimjilbang in Korean) in Incheon whose owner offered free stays and foods for the evacuatees until the government finally provided the apartment for them two weeks later. 

Some of the destroyed houses were to preserved to be seen by visitors

Kang and her family came back to the island after three months of refuge. 

Hasn’t it occurred to her mind to relocate the family to the land? 

“We coudln’t afford to move out unless our house is sold,” she said. “But who’s gonna buy a house in Yeonpyeong after that?” 

After the golden age of yellow croacker came to an end in 1968, the economy of the island collapsed. Struggling to survive, the fishers changed their subject to blue crabs which were gaining popularity in Japan and Korea. 

Now the fisheries around the island yield much less than it used to do decades ago. Overfishing and climate change contributed to this. Rising tensions in the sea since the 70s made it worse. 

Those who can afford relocation already left even before the attack as the economy collapsed. Those who can’t, however, had to remain. 

Weeks after the bombardment, lawmakers in the National Assembly sought to draw up a bill for the aid of the residents. 

The evacuatees called for government’s support for relocation. A couple of lawmakers agreed and sought to put some lines in the bill about the support. 

The government disagreed. 

“In regard to the relocation plan, I’d like to point out this has to be also seen as the matter of protecting the territory,” Vice Minister of the Interior and Safety said in an Assembly committee meeting in December 2010. 

“Experts say if all the residents leave and only the soldiers remain in the island this could lead to the zone becoming an international conflict area in many ways. Considering our national security policy to defend the NLL at any cost, we think we shouldn’t support the residents to leave the island.” 

The bill, Special Act on Support for the five West Sea islands, passed the Assembly in January 2011 without a single line on relocation. 

Sense of fatalism

Many of those who remain in the island rely on part-time jobs created by the bill. Kim, in her fifties who also asked to be not named by her first name, is one of them. 

Kim moved to the island two years after the incident. Because her husband had a job in the island. 

“My generation [who were born after the Korean War] hasn’t experienced anything like that. If I experienced it [the bombardment] myself, I wouldn’t have come here to live.” she said. 

“To be frank, I’d like to leave this place as soon as the [subsidized] job ends.” Kim said. 

As it gets closer to the year-end deadline for denuclearization talks North Korea imposed, Pyongyang has been ratcheting up the tension again. It conducted a “crucial test” last week in a satellite launch station it once promised to dismantle. 

“I’m so afraid… There would be no ship for us [to evacuate] when something happens.” Kim said. 

The biggest obstacle in the islanders’ everyday life is the lack of reliable transportation. The ferry between Incheon and the island is offered only once a day. There is no fixed schedule for the ferry due to the tide. 

The people of the island have been calling for building a new port which would allow larger vessels to dock regardless of the tide in case of emergency. The Ministry of Interior and Safety devised a plan to build one. 

The Ministry of Economy and Finance, however, cut the budget citiing the lack of economic feasibility. 

Only one ferry a day still. Which tends to be cancelled a lot due to weather
(happened to me so I had to stay one more night)

There’s a sense of fatalism everyone I spoke to. 

For one, Kang works as a guide in the Yeonpyeong Security Education Center, which is built above the ruins of civilian houses destoryed by the shelling. This job is also subsidized by local government. 

I saw her explaining the incident the visitors of the day including the K-pop star Hyolyn who happened to hold a gig for the marines the same day I visited. I recognized her voice cracking when she recalled the time of evacuation. 

She’s re-living the incident everytime she recalls it, it seemed. I asked her how she could hold up. 

“Basically people are the same–whether it’s right after the shelling or right now. You just get numb as time passes by.” 

She said her job as the guide ends this year since there is no more budget allocated for the jobs on the government subsidy for the islanders. I didn’t dare to ask her what to do next. 

Leave a Reply