South Korean Islanders Anxious over North’s Provocations; Surrounding Waters Shelled for Three Days in January

Photo by Kazuki Koike / The Yomiuri Shimbun
An evacuation shelter built into the mountainside on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, is seen on Wednesday.

YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — People living on Yeonpyeong, a remote South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, are increasingly anxious over North Korea’s repeated military provocations, including the shelling of surrounding waters in January.

I visited the island on Wednesday to explore the situation. The islands of North Korea could be seen close by when I went to the northern part of Yeonpyeong, which is located about 3 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between North and South Korea.

Coastal guns whose reach extends to Yeonpyeong are said to be deployed in caves and other locations along the coast of North Korea, further than I could see.

On Yeonpyeong, there are several military facilities of the South Korean Marine Corps that are covered with barbed wire. I wanted to take photos, but the soldiers there said no.

In January, North Korea shelled the surrounding waters of the island for three consecutive days. The South Korean military has heightened its vigilance in response, conducting maritime artillery training among other measures.

Slightly more than 2,000 people, mainly fishermen, live on the island. When North Korea conducted shelling, they fled to shelters on the mountainside and underground.

“The evacuation order was released in the morning, and everyone was frightened,” recalled a 64-year-old resident, referring to recent shelling by North Korea.

The mayor of Incheon, which has jurisdiction over the island, on Wednesday inspected one of the eight evacuation shelters there.

The Yomouri Shimbun

Residents still remember how North Korea fired about 170 shells onto the island in 2010, killing four people, including civilians. There is a memorial on the island to the victims.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un labeled South Korea a hostile belligerent at the end of 2023 and has repeatedly launched missiles. There are fears that Kim may escalate provocations in tandem with South Korea’s general elections in April.

“Sometimes the sound of shelling can be heard from the North Korean side, which makes me worried that something may happen again,” a 74-year-old diner owner said. “The island residents are all more nervous than before.”

Photo by Kazuki Koike / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A memorial to the victims of the 2010 North Korean shelling on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, is seen on Wednesday.