The Diplomat’s Seoul-based contributor reports during a recent visit to the Yeonpyeong refugee centre in Incheon.
For a few moments, Kim Song-nam thought artillery shells were about to tear a hole in his life for the second time in two weeks.His heart raced when he heard the sudden wailing of a siren rip through the air. Just a couple of weeks before, air raid sirens had blared above his home on Yeonpyeong Island as North Korea launched an hour-long shelling attack that sparked a frantic dash among residents for underground bunkers.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But this time round, the piercing sound turned out to be a routine fire alarm test for the Incheon harbour area public bathhouse—the temporary home of residents who have fled Yeonpyeong.
‘When the fire bell rang, one old woman fainted and collapsed,’ says the 63-year-old Kim. ‘She lost her house. Everyone was so surprised and shocked by the alarm.’
Kim shares the large bathhouse common room with hundreds of fellow residents. But he says conditions have gradually begun to deteriorate: bathhouse staff are struggling to get enough access to clean the place properly, while many of the elderly have picked up coughs. Some sheltering in the bathhouse are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. But for Kim, it’s the simple things that have stripped residents of their dignity. He says being forced to wear underwear provided by the Korean Red Cross is a humiliation that sums up his stay there.
Yet despite the conditions, the islanders have remained locked in a stand-off with the government, refusing to return to Yeonpyeong until the authorities provide what they called ‘proper assurances’ over safety. Despite unveiling an almost $30 million compensation package for the nearly 1,500 islanders, and vows to bolster military forces in the area, critics say South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government has fallen woefully short of convincing them they can live there with a sense of peace.
A trickle of residents have been returning, but, according to the hundreds remaining, many are set to be re-housed on the mainland as they continue their fight with the authorities. The problem that some officials see is that if there’s no civilian population on the outcrop it could encourage a North Korean takeover of the island.
Inside the bathhouse, residents are huddled on thin mats. The cramped environment is causing tempers to fray. One visitor from Seoul noted sadly that the room—about the size of a high school gymnasium—resembled a refugee camp.
‘Its been pretty bad,’ says 31-year-old Shin Young-keun, who says he has lost out on thousands of dollars in income since leaving the island. ‘Young people here are suffering from coughing, so you can only imagine what’s happening to the old people.’