On South Korean island, tensions high as North Korea's tough talk continues


Hotel owner Park Dong-sik says North Korea’s threats hurt the island’s tourism industry. (Photo by Jason Strother.)

South Koreans on the Baengnyeong Island, about 10 miles off the coast of North Korea, are worried Pyongyang has singled the island out for a possible attack.

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Roughly 5,500 South Koreans live on Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. Almost all of the north coast is lined with cement walls and fences topped with concertina wire. There are only a few ports for fishing boats. But not many are venturing out these days.

Lee Hwan-sun normally drives five minutes out to sea, but won’t even go out that far now because of North Korea’s threats.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has threatened to strike the island if war breaks out. This isn’t the first time Pyongyang has made these threats, but people on the island are taking this latest one more seriously.

If bombs were to fall, residents would hole up in dozens of underground shelters across the island. They’re stocked with dried food and generators that provide power for five days.

With the island roughly 10 miles from a North Korean military base, Kim Jin-guk, of Baengnyeong’s Civil Defense Force, said the possibility of being attacked is much higher. And residents aren't brushing off Pyongyang’s threats in the same way as other South Koreans.

He said he’s not afraid of an all out war, just a surprise attack similar to the one North Korea launched in 2010 on neighboring Yeongpyeong. Four South Koreans died in that attack.

And then there’s the financial hit to the island.

Passenger ferries from Incheon are mostly empty these days. Tourism is one of Baengnyeong’s biggest industries, and almost everyone here complains that North Korea’s rhetoric is keeping visitors away.

Mun-hwa hotel owner Park Dong-sik said the media coverage of the threats has led potential visitor to cancel reservations all the way until June. It’s the worst time he can remember.

Park has laid his trust in the few thousand South Korean soldiers stationed on the island to protect the residents. He’ll never leave the island, he said.

But fisherman Lee Hwan-sun isn’t as optimistic. He’s thinking about moving off Baengnyeong all together.

“My children have been telling me and my wife that we should move in with them on the mainland,” he said. “With all the noise from North Korea, I’ve been thinking about it. But if we all leave, what will happen to the island?”

Lee said for now he’ll continue working on his nets for that time when he can take his fishing boats back out to sea.