Mon, Apr 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

South Korean islanders on front line prepare for the worst

By Justin McCurry  /  The Guardian, BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea

The people of Baengnyeong are divided over how seriously they should take the North Korean threats. No one has left the island since Kim’s outburst, although some say they are reluctant to leave because they would lose the US$50 a month “danger money” the government has paid every resident since nearby Yeonpyeong Island was shelled in November 2010.

However, the standoff is ruining the tourist industry, one of the island’s main sources of income. Ferries that once brought tens of thousands of tourists a year from the mainland now carry troops and supplies. Guesthouse reservations have plummeted since the crisis began in February and custom at the island’s famed shorefront restaurants has slowed to a trickle.

“Tourists are staying away because they’re petrified of what might happen,” said Kim Byung-deuk, a former public official.

Kim Byung-deuk, 66, who has left the island only once to perform military service, does not believe North Korea will make good on its threats.

“We’ve heard it all before. There’s no way I’m leaving. Even if they attack, we have plenty of shelters here,” he said.

Others are more cautious given that Kim Jong-un, in power for just over a year, is proving every bit as capricious as his father.

“I worry about him,” said Park Se-ahn, a 63-year-old fisherman. “He’s way too young to know what he’s doing, to stay in control of a country like that.”

A group of South Korean marines dining on barbecued pork belly said they had stepped up preparations for a possible North Korean attack, but refused to elaborate.

“We’re encouraged to come out for a casual drink to reassure the residents that everything is normal,” said a staff sergeant, who asked not to be named. “The military wants to give the appearance of calm, but as individual soldiers, we all know in our hearts that this is an emergency situation.”

The island’s authorities seem to agree. A few days before my visit, residents took part in an air-raid drill and local troops recently started to conduct random vehicle checks.

Residents have been told to stockpile a week’s worth of food and water, and to be ready to donate blood. Each has been issued with a gas mask for use in the event of a chemical or biological attack. Some have reportedly taken to sleeping in their clothes in preparation for a nighttime assault.

However, in other ways life on Baengnyeong goes on as normal. On a pebble beach, with North Korea’s coastline in the distance, elderly women collect rubbish in the hope that tourists will soon be drawn back to their island’s dramatic coastline, hiking trails and unrivaled seafood.

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