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.
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.’
Dark and dingy, the bulging bags under hundreds of eyes speak of numerous sleepless nights. Kim rests in a corner under a sign bearing a simple message: ‘The government must protect us. We are not bulletproof. Guarantee our right to live.’
Kim Jae-hyung, a representative of the Ongjin County local government, which is responsible for Yeonpyeong, says the bathhouse was the best option available for housing the islanders when the exodus began. ‘We never imagined they’d be here this long. We thought maybe two or three days,’ he says. ‘Quite a number of people preferred this place because they could talk to each other and stick together.’
As the stand-off intensified, the Incheon metropolitan government offered housing in Gimpo, a nearby mainland city—an option initially rebuffed, according to one official, but which now looks to have been accepted by many.
But there have also been hints of conflict among the residents. Some have been keen to return quickly to the island, while others have remained adamant that the government should do more to guarantee compensation money is spent appropriately and that security is a priority. Still, some men have been pictured this week readying fishing equipment by the island shore, suggesting that many do indeed intend to return.
Yet for Shin Il-kun, an island fisherman and a spokesman for a group named the Yeonpyeong Island Emergency Plan Committee, better conditions on the island aren’t the point. ‘It’s not a matter of safety—we don’t want to live there anymore,’ says the 40-year-old, whose house was completely destroyed in the shelling. ‘The reason people are going back to the island is to pick up their stuff and to lock up their houses. We really want to go back but we can’t bear to stay there.’
On the island, about 40 miles west of Incheon and just seven miles from the North Korean shoreline, the shattered debris of a village stripped of life are gradually being collected up. But there’s evidence of sudden flight around almost every corner. An empty fish tank outside a restaurant, for example, lies in a street, the fish that would have gone on sale on November 23 instead left rotting. Inside one house are the remains of a hastily abandoned meal.
Back in Incheon, life remains on hold. ‘I was born in Yeonpyeong. My parents are in the cemetery there,’ Kim says. ‘I curse my life.’ He pauses for a few moments, before changing subjects.
‘The last two governments supported North Korea with billions of dollars, but the result is a missile for my hometown,’ Kim says of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of engagement pursued by previous South Korean governments.
He’s dismissive of North Korea’s belated apology for the civilian casualties from last month’s shelling, and says that he believes Pyongyang’s only regret is that more people weren’t killed.
‘I tried to understand the “Sunshine Policy” because North Koreans are also Korean people,’ he says. ‘But I’ve changed my mind. They should starve to death.’