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As North Korea launches missiles and artillery, this island's residents are terrified

Loudspeakers in a village of Yeonpyeong island, near the Northern Limit Line sea boundary with North Korea, on Jan. 6, a day after North Korean shelling. North Korea fired an artillery barrage near two South Korean border islands on Jan. 5, Seoul's defense ministry said, prompting a live-fire drill by the South's military.
Jung Yeon-Je
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AFP via Getty Images
Loudspeakers in a village of Yeonpyeong island, near the Northern Limit Line sea boundary with North Korea, on Jan. 6, a day after North Korean shelling. North Korea fired an artillery barrage near two South Korean border islands on Jan. 5, Seoul's defense ministry said, prompting a live-fire drill by the South's military.

YEONPYEONG, South Korea — As tensions between North and South Korea mount, inhabitants of this South Korean island just 7 miles from North Korea's west coast have special reasons to be jittery.

North Korea has lately been lobbing projectiles into the Yellow Sea, known in South Korea as the West Sea, at a frantic pace, including two salvos of cruise missiles (another salvo was fired eastward) and around 350 artillery rounds in the past month.

And Pyongyang recently reiterated that it considers the maritime border just a mile north of Yeonpyeong illegal, sparking concerns that the island could once again become a flashpoint.

In 2010, Yeonpyeong became the first South Korean civilian settlement to be bombarded by North Korean artillery since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

"I'm walking around this village thinking, if a shell falls right now, what shelter should I go to," says island resident Choi Gyeong-il. "I feel so anxious, it's difficult to go about my everyday life."

Kim Jeoung-hee, head of a residents community, opens up a shelter on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, on Jan. 8.
Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters
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Reuters
Kim Jeoung-hee, head of a residents community, opens up a shelter on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, on Jan. 8.

Choi says he and other residents keep bags with emergency supplies packed and ready to go in case of another emergency.

Yeonpyeong Island, home to about 2,100 people, used to be part of North Korea's Hwanghae province. Many current residents' parents fled to the island from North Korea during the Korean War.

Yeonpyeong is now one of five South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea administered by the port city of Incheon, 50 miles to the east.

Tensions have risen, in part, due to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's recent policy shifts. He has given up on negotiating with Washington and instead is strengthening ties with Russia and China. He has also said he has given up on the prospect of reunification with the South — and he has threatened to subjugate and occupy the South if it attacks the North.

The maritime border between the two Koreas remains in dispute

He also scrapped a 2018 military accord with Seoul that restricted military activity near the border.

"As the southern border of our country has been clearly drawn, the illegal 'Northern Limit Line' and any other boundary can never be tolerated," Kim said in a Jan. 15 speech to his parliament. If South Korea "violates even a hundredth of a millimeter of our territorial land, air and waters, it will be considered a war provocation," he warned.

North Korea has never accepted the Northern Limit Line, which the United Nations Command declared at the end of the Korean War without consulting Pyongyang. North Korea drew its own maritime boundary south of the line in 1999.

The disputed waters between the two Koreas' definitions of their maritime boundaries are considered highly volatile.

A general view shows an unidentified boat before the North Korean coastline as seen from a viewpoint on Yeonpyeong Island, near the Northern Limit Line sea boundary with North Korea, on Jan. 6.
Jung Yeon-Je / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A general view shows an unidentified boat before the North Korean coastline as seen from a viewpoint on Yeonpyeong Island, near the Northern Limit Line sea boundary with North Korea, on Jan. 6.

Two Yeonpyeong sea battles happened in 1999 and 2002, "when the two navies' vessels got into skirmishes in between the two lines," recalls retired South Korean navy Capt. Yoon Sukjoon, who previously commanded a navy fast attack squadron stationed at Yeonpyeong Island.

Yoon notes that since the 1990s, North Korea has sold fishing licenses to Chinese fishermen, which South Koreans see as violating their territory. North and South Korean and Chinese fishermen come to waters near Yeonpyeong Island to catch crabs.

Yoon believes that launching an attack across the Northern Limit Line could carry huge costs for North Korea, which has other options to provoke and disrupt its southern neighbor.

But, he says, "if Kim Jong Un is looking for a scapegoat for the hostile policy change he declared to the North Korean people, Yeonpyeong or Baekryeong Island could become a target." Baekryeong is west of Yeonpyeong Island.

Yeonpyeong residents are well aware of the risks.

"Whenever there's a thumping sound or an artillery sound, that puts the residents on alert," says island guide An Chilseong. "We become nervous because of the trauma from the 2010 shelling. We have a military base here and well-maintained shelters to escape to, so that's reassuring, but we still feel anxious."

North Korea's 2010 attack is memorialized on the island

Reminders of the 2010 attack are on display at a national security education base on the island, which includes partially destroyed homes, and a peace park with plaques honoring the two service members killed in the attack. Two civilians were also killed.

In January, a woman looks at wrecked homes hit by North Korea's 2010 shelling attack at a museum that displays materials related to the attack.
Jung Yeon-Je / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
In January, a woman looks at wrecked homes hit by North Korea's 2010 shelling attack at a museum that displays materials related to the attack.

Residents were also reminded of 2010 on Jan. 5, when North Korea conducted artillery drills and the South responded with drills of its own.

Resident Choi Ok-seon says she and other villagers headed to air raid shelters after getting authorities' text messages and hearing broadcasts instructing them to take shelter.

"These past few days, I've been very worried," she says. "There are wars going on in other countries, and I'm concerned Kim Jong Un might really decide to do something."

Some experts believe Kim Jong Un's warlike rhetoric is defensive and aimed at shielding his country from South Korean cultural influences, which have been making inroads in the North.

"Ten years ago, North Koreans defected [to the South] because they were hungry," says retired South Korean Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum. "Now North Koreans are defecting because they want to achieve their dreams. Can you imagine how scary that must be to Kim Jong Un?"

Chun is concerned that Kim's next step could be "a military confrontation, with an actual shooting scenario," near the Northern Limit Line.

South Korean marines patrol the entrance to a beach on Yeonpyeong Island.
Jung Yeon-Je / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
South Korean marines patrol the entrance to a beach on Yeonpyeong Island.

But he also warns his own government to refrain from rhetorical bluster that could escalate tensions. President Yoon Suk Yeol, for example, has promised to severely punish North Korea for any provocations.

South Korea, Chun argues, needs to distinguish between provocations that directly harm South Koreans and those that don't. And if some South Koreans want to "teach North Korea a lesson," he says, "that's all good. But when you are teaching North Korea a lesson, you need an off-ramp."

Just where that ramp lies, he says, is unclear.

Se Eun Gong contributed to this report from Seoul and Yeonpyeong Island.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.