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The Globe and Mail

Anxiety mounts on island caught between two Koreas

South Korean marines patrol on Yeonpyeong island near the western maritime border between the two Koreas, 11 km (7 miles) from the North, about 115 km (71 miles) northwest of Seoul March 12, 2013. North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at the border island on November 23, 2010, killing two civilians and South Korean soldiers in the heaviest attack on its neighbour since the Korean War ended in 1953. The White House on Monday expressed concern at what it called North Korea's latest provocations aimed at raising tensions and instability in Northeast Asia.


Jang Geum-hwa had lived for decades in the constant crosshairs of the North Korean military, on this nervous little island in the middle of waters that Pyongyang claims as its own. She chose to spend her retirement on Yeonpyeong Island – a place most famous for being shelled by North Korean artillery in 2010 – because the quiet tension of this place was already routine for her.

But with war talk at its shrillest pitch in years, the 69-year-old retiree finally cracked and gave into her family's pleas for her to leave behind the sleepy fishing village that sits amid the front-line South Korean military base here. She lived through the last North Korean attack on her home, but didn't want to be here for the next one.

On Tuesday, shortly after the South Korean military announced there would be live-fire exercises near this craggy fishing outpost, Ms. Jang packed an enormous sea bass into a Styrofoam cooler, stuffed a red grocery bag full of green onions and caught the day's only ferry to the port of Incheon, on the South Korean mainland.

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"I'm going to my son's house," Ms. Jang said, pausing beside a 300-seat hydrofoil that arrived at Yeonpyeong carrying mostly soldiers and marines, and departed full of civilians, many of whom admitted they were leaving in fear. "I won't be going back for a while," Ms. Jang said.

It's easy to understand why she and the other residents were fleeing. Pyongyang, in a loud fury over new international sanctions that it blames on South Korea and its ally, the United States, has declared that it no longer considers itself bound by the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

Both sides are now engaged in massive land and sea military exercises that put the peninsula one miscalculation away from a reignited conflict. And North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un, has told his front-line units that Yeonpyeong Island – which they shelled in December, 2010 – may again be their target.

The anxiety on Yeonpyeong, a seven-square-kilometre outcrop that's home to 1,300 people, is such that when the South Korean military announced it would conduct live-fire exercises on Tuesday afternoon – triggering a protocol for residents to be ordered into bomb shelters – many here misheard and headed for the daily ferry, believing it was the North that was about to start shooting.

"There was an official announcement saying, 'Everybody leave your homes and go into the shelter. North Korea today will attack,' " said Ha Sung-man, a 51-year-old fisherman who was among those who fled the island in confusion. "It was too scary to stay."

The South Korean military presence is thick on Yeonpyeong Island, with a camouflaged lookout post above the tiny harbour, and nearly as many soldiers as pedestrians in the streets. There were also South Korean warships floating off the coast when The Globe and Mail visited on Tuesday. "We always feel tension on this island … it is tense all the time," said Captain Sung, a military public-relations officer on Yeonpyeong, who gave only her family name and rank. She was wearing a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. "We are always prepared for anything to happen."

The jumpiness is easy to grasp. Four people on the island were killed and 18 others were injured in December, 2010, when North Korean artillery fired some 170 shells at Yeonpyeong in supposed retaliation for South Korean military exercises that it saw as threatening.

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Ironically, the carnage gave the Yeonpyeong economy a boost in the form of tourists from mainland South Korea keen to spend a few hours on this previously unheard-of front line. An island that had only one motel before the attack now has 10 places offering rooms to visitors. The attack "turned out to be a good advertisement for Yeonpyeong," said Kim Jung-hee, a 55-year-old fishing-boat captain who said no one he knew was planning to leave the island.

But the tourists have disappeared again as tension has skyrocketed in recent weeks. First came last month's nuclear test, North Korea's third, which triggered tightened United Nations sanctions targeting the finances of the country's elites. In response to the pressure, Kim Jong-un has put his country on a war footing and made statements that could be interpreted as very specific threats against Yeonpyeong.

According to the North's official KCNA newswire, Mr. Kim last week visited the same artillery units that attacked Yeonpyeong in 2010 and "told the commander of the detachment to photograph the enemy's positions engulfed in flames and blown up during a battle and send pictures to the Supreme Command."

The flashpoint island was made part of South Korea under the 1953 truce that ended the Korean War, and sits on the South Korean side of the sea border recognized by the United Nations. But it is only 12 kilometres from the North Korean coastline. Pyongyang also claims the waters around Yeonpyeong (under new sea borders it unilaterally declared in 1999) and routinely compares South Korean military actions in the area to acts of war.

"If something happens, Yeonpyeong is probably the most likely spot," said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul. "They are ready to shell the island because it's a relatively cheap and safe way to remind the world of their existence."

In other words, North Korea – which is believed to be trying to force the United States to give it aid money in exchange for a period of peace – may consider an attack on Yeonpyeong fair game because it has done it before without provoking an all-out war, something the regime likely understands it would lose.

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The difference between now and 2010 is that South Korean public opinion toward the North hardened dramatically following the attack on Yeonpyeong. The South Korean military is itching to fire back the next time it's provoked, Prof. Lankov said, and the new government of President Park Geun-hye will not want to look weak in its first showdown with Pyongyang.

Despite the tension – and the confusion over who was doing the shooting in Tuesday's drill – the vast majority of Yeonpyeong residents were defiantly planning to stay.

"My son asks me every day to leave Yeonpyeong," said Kim Jin-hawa, the 79-year-old owner of one of the island's newly prosperous motels. "I understand [why he asks], but I still feel it's safe here."

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