Yeonpyeong residents caught in lengthy limbo

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Yeonpyeong residents caught in lengthy limbo


Residents evacuated from Yeonpyeong Island, shelled by North Korea on Nov. 23, lived like refugees for weeks at a jjimjilbang, or bathhouse, in Incheon. [NEWSIS]

GIMPO - When Rhyu Sang-heum boarded a boat to flee his home on Yeonpyeong Island the day after North Korea’s artillery attack on Nov. 23, he thought he would need to take shelter temporarily. He left for the mainland wearing only his work clothes and boots.

Rhyu ended up living in a five-story traditional bathhouse for 27 days. Now, he has moved temporarily into an unsold apartment in a new complex in Gimpo, northeast of Incheon.

The story is the same for some 1,000 Yeonpyeong residents who fled to Incheon, the nearest city on the mainland, after their fishing village came under attack.

“I thought I was just escaping imminent danger and didn’t realize the situation would go on this long,” Rhyu said while waiting in line to get a boxed lunch provided by the city government for those who moved into new homes without utensils and cooking equipment. “I’m living in limbo,” said the fisherman, who settled on the island - famous for blue-crab fishing - three years ago.

Yeonpyeong used to be home to some 1,400 civilians guarded by as many as 1,000 soldiers. Most of the residents escaped unhurt as they were at the shore collecting oysters and clams as on any normal November afternoon. But two soldiers were killed as the North pounded the island with some 170 rounds of artillery. Two civilian construction workers who were building marine barracks were also killed.

One month after the attack, tensions continue to run high as the two Koreas remain on military alert. The South has been conducting high-power drills, including firing exercises from Yeonpyeong on Monday. The North at first threatened to retaliate to Monday’s drills but didn’t follow through.

Aside from those who are determined to stay on the front line on Yeonpyeong, 1,000 or so residents are now living in the new apartment complex in Gimpo, where households of up to 10 people share three rooms. The apartments are meant to be temporary shelters for two months.

For those who stay there, Incheon officials promised to provide 3 million won ($2,600) each to help them settle, and have already handed out half of that sum. Shuttle buses were put into service between Incheon’s port and Gimpo to transport newcomers, mobile clinics were opened, and food, drinks, bedding and cooking utensils are being distributed.

“We are doing our best to help the residents through the winter,” a county official said.

Kim Jae-shik, who was chosen by the residents to represent them, says the assistance measures are far from enough. The refugees have no idea what will happen after two months, and the compensation is not enough for those who have lost their homes and sources of income, he said.

“We are asking the government to restore Yeonpyeong first, and then compensate residents so that people can either go back to their homes or stay on the mainland if they want,” Kim said. “There should be some way for these people to go back to their lives or find something to do to make a living.”

The residents say all that they’ve been able to do is flee the overcrowded bathhouse.

“I don’t feel at home in the temporary housing because we still have to think about where to go after two months,” said a 53-year-old resident, who only gave her last name, Kim. “I don’t want to go back to the island after all the things that happened in front of my eyes.”

Kim Jong-hui, 54, mostly spends his spare time watching news on his cell phone, trying to determine whether to go back to the island or find a new place to live on the mainland. The news reports aired clips of the South Korean military maintaining its highest alert near border areas. “There is no good news from Yeonpyeong,” Kim said.

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