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(Yonhap Feature) Life goes on for S. Korean islanders amid military tension
By Kim Eun-jung
YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea, Nov. 22 (Yonhap) -- A three-hour ferry ride from the western port city of Incheon lies Yeonpyeong Island, famed for its crab and seemingly a scene of perfect tranquility.

   Here, however, the threat of all-out conflict is always present and the possibility of an attack from North Korea at any moment has hovered in the air since a deadly artillery bombardment on Nov. 23, 2010.

   The attack, which killed two Marines and two civilians, marked the first time South Korean territory has come under attack since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice.

   "I still cannot forget the fear and horrible feeling when the island was shelled by North Korea," said Choi Sung-il, a resident. "At this moment, military tension fills the air, and people are often surprised by gunshots."

Fishing boats docked at Yeonpyeong Island. (Yonhap file photo)

Given what happened two years ago, some doubted whether the island would recover and yet, life goes on. This is now what passes for normal.

   Most of the island's 1,200 residents have returned over the past years. The islanders, mostly fishermen, have become used to living in fear as their homes sit just 1.5 kilometers from a maritime sea border, the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which Pyongyang does not recognize.

   "Of course, residents are not comfortable with military exercises," said Kim Tae-jin, a county official. "But we just live with it."

   The Marine Corps last year tripled its troops on the island from 500 to 1,500. The island is ready for war at any time, lined with tank traps and trenches and equipped with fully-stocked shelters to which residents go during regular air raid drills. More tanks and artillery pieces are now placed within easy range of North Korea, according to military officials.

   Still, tensions run high as the two Koreas stand on military alert on either side of the maritime boundary, where a series of minor clashes took place in the fall.

   Aware of the precarious situation on the island, South Korea maintains one of its newest class of guided-missile ships nearby, designed for close-range naval skirmishes. Additional weapons have been deployed on Yeonpyeong to ensure quick-strike capabilities, with more guided-missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles for maritime patrol awaiting deployment next year.

   The North has also reinforced its coastal artillery gun positions near bases close to the tense sea border after its leader Kim Jong-un in August visited border islands from which his troops fired on Yeonpyeong. He told the military to be vigilant and ready to lead a "sacred war."

   In response, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last month visited the front-line island in an unprecedented move and said his military would have no choice but to launch a counterattack if there was another provocation.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak inspects a K-9 self-propelled artillery gun on his visit to Yeonpyeong Island on Oct. 18, 2012. (Yonhap)

Despite the volatile atmosphere, Kim Bo-ram, a Lance Cpl. who works in the gunnery, said he is proud of serving on the tensely guarded island and is ready to retaliate if there is another provocation from the North.

   "We are fully prepared," said the 20-year-old, who volunteered for the Marines, as all able-bodied South Korean men should serve at least two years in the military. "If the enemy provokes again, we will grind them into powder."

   Despite the loss of two of their own and two civilians on the island, the Marines believe they won the battle because they fired dozens of shots back at North Korean artillery bases minutes after first being hit. The exact extent of damage in North Korea has not been confirmed but that has not prevented the South Korean Marines from claiming a win.

   "At first, newcomers have fears, but they have overcome such feelings through systematic training," Master Sgt. Jung Kyung-sik said. "Because their seniors won the battle in response to North Korean provocations, they are determined to take revenge in case of provocations."

   The North vehemently disagrees. On Wednesday, a propaganda mouthpiece for the North's ruling party, the Rodong Shinmun, condemned the South Korean military calling the battle a victory as a "shameful act" and renewed its threat of another attack on Yeonpyeong Island "fiercer than the last sea of fire."
Ahead of the second anniversary of the shelling on Friday, the tiny island, which sprawls over about 7 sq. kilometers, was busy with construction. Several workers could be seen on rooftops and trucks were carrying bricks and steel frames to build a new hospital and welfare complex.

   After the walls of houses crumbled or were burned by the unprovoked attack, the local government restored damaged homes and paved the roads in a hard-hit district, using state funds. If one looks up, small mountains still showed bare and exposed ground, with several areas dotted with red flags that indicate the site of the artillery attacks.

   "Construction works to renovate or rebuild 32 houses, including shops and warehouses, have been almost completed," said Kim, the county official.

   Kim said more facilities for water, electricity and amenities are needed for the growing number of people living on the island. Following the incident, about 240 extra people moved to the island, mostly the families of the increased numbers of military personnel and construction workers, according to the county office. There was only a handful of accommodation available, and all rooms were fully booked for several months.

   After the town was badly damaged by some 170 artillery shells, some residents holed up in shabby shelters, which had barely been used for decades, while others hurriedly left the island to take shelter at public saunas in Incheon, some for as long as a month.

   In response to residents' demands for decent bomb shelters, the local government built seven new shelters to accommodate residents in case of another attack and for them to use during military exercises.

   When the government announced its plan to turn the island into a site for security education, similar to the heavily-guarded demilitarized zone that draws many foreign visitors, residents and local officials demanded much-needed infrastructure improvements and more accommodation options to cater to visitors.

   There is only one ferry a day to transport passengers between the closest port and Yeonpyeong. The schedule varies most days and services are often canceled when tides are high, with about 70 cancellations last year, according to the county office.

   "To draw more visitors, dock facilities are the most needed," Kim said. "There is a lot more to be done to draw tourists here."

   As part of the government project currently underway, a memorial hall and tower will be unveiled at this year's commemoration ceremony.

   The Marine Corps has turned a one-story barber shop inside its barracks, which was almost destroyed by artillery shells, into a memorial hall to give visitors a first-hand experience of what it was like at the time of attack.

   "We preserved this site to show the intense situation and raise security awareness among visitors," Col. Joo Jong-ha said.

   To commemorate the two fallen Marines, both of whom were in their early 20s at the time of death, a memorial tower was also built inside Peace Park, atop a promontory with a clear view of the North Korean shoreline.

A soldier looks at images two fallen Marines who were killed in a 2010 shelling on Yeonpyeong Island. (Yonhap)

On the second anniversary, Marines based in the Yeonpyeong unit and other naval forces will conduct field and simulated exercises. This year's drill will not include any live-fire exercises, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

   Capt. Kim Jeong-soo, 31, said the 2010 shelling was a wake-up call for everybody serving on the island that an all-out conflict could take place at any time.

   "Because Yeonpyeong Island is very close to North Korea, every unit is within the enemy's range," Kim, who was then commander of the Marines artillery battery, said, as he gazed at plagues honoring his fallen comrades. "Service members here should fulfill their mission, remembering that the enemy is always ready to shoot at us."