Korean crisis: Can Yeonpyeong fishermen cope in suburban Seoul?


GIMPO CITY, South Korea — When North Korea attacked Yeonpyeong in November, it dashed more than four lives and scores of homes on the tiny island in the Yellow Sea. The North also took from the people of Yeonpyeong a way of life — at least for the time being.

After the attack, hundreds of the island's 1,400 residents fled to the mainland, where they have since lived in a state of limbo. Initially, they slept on the floor of a public bathhouse. And now, a month on, the government has relocated about 1,000 of the island's residents to vacant, unfurnished housing units in Gimpo City, a suburb of Seoul.

For this fishing community, the question now is not whether they will be attacked again, but how to cope far from home, in alien, suburban surroundings.

The odds appear stacked against them. The temporary housing is located in an underdeveloped area with little but an airport and large construction sites in its vicinity. The area lacks the density and busy street life common in South Korea. It is full of open fields being turned into housing complexes and highways. The air smells of concrete and asphalt. It is a 20-minute drive from the nearest subway station and buses are infrequent. Yeonpyeong evacuees are to remain there for a minimum of two months.

Choe Nam-bu, a middle-aged restaurant worker, had spent two days in Gimpo and felt uneasy in her new dwellings. “I didn’t want to come here but felt as if I had no other choice. I want to go back but we need the government to ensure that it will be safe for us,” Choe said.

Gimpo is home to one of the manufactured communities common in South Korea. The country’s population is heavily concentrated in Seoul; the government has designed several of these satellite cities to ease congestion in the capital. Thus far, the communities have failed to take root due to their distance from jobs and amenities.

The location’s unattractiveness is one of the reasons the Yeonpyeong residents have ended up there. The complex belongs to the Land and Housing Corporation, a heavily indebted state-owned enterprise that has undertaken many large development projects that have failed to find tenants.

There were plenty of empty units in the Gimpo housing complex on a recent visit. Residents will be responsible for rental payments while living there.

"We are doing our best to help the residents tide over the winter, " a county official told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Besides rent payments, boredom appears one of the refugees' biggest problems. Residents have no television or newspaper delivery. “We have no information about what is happening in the world,” Jo Heung-jun, an elderly fisherman, said. “We’d be more content if we had some way of keeping up with what is going on. We don’t even know if there will be another attack. My heart is telling me to go back, but my mind says no.”

Residents commonly express desire to return to the predictability and self-sufficiency of the time before the attack. Jo said, “I work to eat; I do everything by hand. Having left, there’s nothing, not a single thing for us to do. That’s the tough thing.”

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The government and evacuees have had trouble agreeing on compensation for the damage from the attack and a plan for the future of the island and its people.

Residents are asking for state provision of everything required to resettle on the mainland, including permanent housing and a sustained source of income. Most Yeonpyeong residents’ skills and employment experience are not easily transferable to the competitive job market on the mainland.

They will be unable to resume fishing until the situation is deemed stable. If the island’s small population is split between those who return and those who stay away, fisherman may have no customers to purchase their goods.

Of the island's original 1,400 residents, fewer than 100 remain on the island. A small number is staying in studio apartments provided by Incheon city government, the metropolis next to Seoul.

The government has said it will only provide a lump sum payment of $3,500 to adults and $1,760 to those under 18.

Private companies have donated essential items. During the afternoon, residents stood in groups waiting to be issued space heaters, slippers and undergarments.

Park Jang-hoon stood outside in a dignified posture with his hands behind his back as he waited for government-issued bags used to dispose of garbage. He wore the kind of dark colored, heavy jacket and boots commonly worn by fishermen. The skin of his face was weathered with age and exposure to the elements.

“This isn’t a place to stay for any length of time. At home I had work and a routine, but here I don’t have that. I’m not living as a human should. All I do is sit around waiting for supplies,” said Park.

Some, like Park, don’t have a home to return to. His house came under direct fire, “It’s too much for words. Our entire home was destroyed.”

The attack destroyed 29 houses and damaged 80. The reconstruction of destroyed houses will be supported by the government: owners of unlivable dwellings will receive $7,940; damaged homes will garner $3,970.

South Korea's government was sharply criticized for a timid response to the North's aggression and officials have since stepped up their tough talk. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has pledged to turn Yeonpyeong and the other four South Korean Yellow Sea islands into “fortresses.”

Ahn Hae-seong worked in construction until the evacuation. He had spent his whole life on Yeonpyeong. He sat away from the clumps of people waiting for supplies smoking a cigarette earlier this month.

He said the people of Yeonpyeong need more than an expanded military presence. “We didn’t do anything and they attacked us. That’s the scariest thing,” Ahn said.

He continued, “I don’t think we really need more of the military. The attack has already happened, we were already hurt, what good is it now? We need more than that.”