Bleak future for S Korean islanders

2010-11-30 14:36

Incheon - Residents of a South Korean island shelled by North Korea last week have taken refuge at a mammoth spa, but life is anything but relaxing and the future looks bleak with no guarantee they will ever go home.

Most of the 1 600 residents of Yeonpyeong have fled the mountainous isle that lies just 3km from the disputed sea border and well within range of North Korea's artillery, which killed four people last week and destroyed dozens of houses.

Many of the 300 or so who have taken over an entire floor of the In Spa World courtesy of its owner and the city of Incheon say their frustration is growing and life at the shelter unbearable.

"The air is stuffy, the floor is hard and we don't get enough sun," said Shin Il-geun, who has been at the spa since the shelling which turned his home into ghost town, with just 30 or so residents still there.

"The people here are those who have nobody to turn to, the most helpless, and we're getting the worst end of the deal, with no end in sight," Shin said, his voice rising in frustration.

Anger is growing in South Korea at how its government and the military handled the North's surprise attack against a civilian target on land for the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Restraint rather than action

President Lee Myung-bak has vowed to get tough with the North, a pledge similar to the one he issued after he accused the North of torpedoing a navy ship in March, killing 46 sailors.

Both times, many say, his get-tough message was followed by restraint rather than action.

Many of the mostly elderly former residents of Yeonpyeong spend their days sitting or lying idly in a dimly lit open space on the second floor, surrounded by half eaten fruit, paper cups and bags carrying the most basic necessities. Few have any idea where their lives are headed.

Park Hye-won used to run the only playschool on Yeonpyeong with 48 children, mostly the offspring of Marines and their spouses who are stationed there. She worries some of her charges may have been traumatised for life by the shelling.

"It was nap time and the teachers had to wake them up and get them dressed, and get them moving to evacuate. But you know, the kids were so orderly. Their instinct told them there was danger."

Park was back at her job running the playschool, but now in a makeshift room in a corner of the spa. She feels it is more important than ever to create some sort of normalcy for the children.

"We hope playing will help bring some peace. And we're lucky to have this space and have toys donated for them."

Unsure of return

It is a long way from home for the grown ups, who are too old for the hard floors, the water park upstairs or the fancy gym equipment.

Kim Jae-ok was first in line when lunch was served, appearing withdrawn and depressed.

"It's very hard," he muttered under his hat as he took a meal of rice, broiled beef and kimchi pickled cabbage. "I really don't know if we are going to go back home."

Some found refuge in worship. Ko Yam-jeon, aged 76, was getting up from a chat with a psychological counsellor, looking relieved and serene. Yeonpyeong was her home for 60 years, and she also does not know whether she will go back.

"It's so sad four people died, but I've prayed that it wasn't worse. I am grateful for that," Ko said reaching for a reporter's hand.

"I prayed for North Korea that things don't get worse ... that we would be reunited one day."

Read more on:    lee myung-bak  |  north korea  |  south korea
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