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North Korea

Pyongyang belligerence affects island residents

As tensions rise on the Korean peninsula and Pyongyang threatens nuclear war with Seoul and the US, residents of the island of Baengnyeong live in fear. North Korea has already named it as a military target.

Almost all of Baengnyeong's north coast is lined with concertina wire fences and cement walls. There are just a few ports where fishing boats can head out to sea. But not so many set sail these days.

"Normally, I'd be able to drive my boat out for five minutes into the sea and then start fishing. But now, because of North Korea's threats, I wouldn't think about going out that far," says Lee Hwan-sun at one of the wharfs, as he fixes holes in a giant orange fishing net.

Too close for comfort

At its closest point, Baengnyeong is only about 15 kilometers away from North Korean territory. Last month, the North's ruler Kim Jong Un ordered his army to take aim at the island if war erupts. The waters of the Yellow Sea have long been a flashpoint between the two Koreas. But some locals say they are worried now more than ever.

Lee Hwan-sun, a fisherman from Baengnyeong, South Korea
(Photo: DW/Jason Strother)

The war rhetoric is already affecting the islanders' livelihoods

Sitting on wooden planks spread over a bed of broken clamshells at another port, five women all in their 70s say they have had enough of Pyongyang's belligerence. They all agree that the North's young leader is unpredictable.

"Kim Jong Un is worse than his father Kim Jong Il. We do not know when he is going to launch a missile. We are all scared," one woman explains.

Prepared for an attack

The island has many defenses against a North Korean invasion. Thousands of South Korean soldiers and marines are stationed on Baengnyeong. And to protect residents, around 90 bomb shelters are spread across the island.

Inside one of the bunkers, Kim Jin-guk points to a map hanging on the wall to show how close Baengnyeong is to North Korea. He heads the island's Civil Defense Force. Kim says locals don't just brush off Pyongyang's threats like many other South Koreans tend to do.

"Because the possibility of being attacked here is so much higher, people here are more aware about the danger from North Korea than people in Seoul or elsewhere. Residents here are worried about an attack," he says.

Kim says he is also worried about an attack. But he is less afraid of all-out war, just a surprise attack like the one North Korea launched in 2010 on neighboring Yeongpyeong, which killed four South Koreans.

If North Korean bombs do fall on the island of Baengnyeong, an alarm system will alert residents to head for safety in the shelters. But of course, Kim hopes he does not have to ever use it.

Tourism takes a hit

Map shows Baengnyeong situated near North Korea

Baengnyeong island is located very close to North Korea

There's another reason that North Korean threats are taken more seriously here. Whenever Pyongyang threatens the South, the islanders' livelihoods are the first to take a hit.

Tourism is a major industry here, but officials say Pyongyang's rhetoric is keeping visitors away. Even some companies that ferry passengers to and from the mainland say they don't know how much longer they can operate if this situation continues.

Park Dong-sik owns the Mun-hwa Hotel and says business is really hurting.

"The North-South tension and the media coverage of Baengnyeong are causing my guests to cancel reservations all the way until June. The impact on local businesses now is worse than any other time I can recall."

Park was lucky on this day. Around forty tourists from a town outside of Seoul are staying at his hotel. They all belong to a senior citizen travel club and don't seem too bothered by North Korea's bluster. Nam Jeong-woo is one of them.

"What does it matter if we are here on the island or back home?" one senior explains. "If they attack the island then the whole country will be at war. Every single part of South Korea will be a battle field."

Refusing to leave

But after their tour is over, these travelers will get to go back home. For Baengnyeong residents like hotel owner Park Dong-sik, leaving is not an option.

"I am not scared of North Korea. I trust that the soldiers stationed here will protect us if fighting breaks out. No matter how bad the situation gets, I will never leave the island."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits a long-range artillery sub-unit of the Korean People's Army Unit 641, whose mission is to strike Baengnyeong Island of South Korea in the western sector of the front line March 11, 2013
(Photo: REUTERS/KCNA)

'Kim Jong Un is worse than his father Kim Jong Il'

Even fisherman Lee Hwan-sun, whose livelihood is on the line, can't quite bring himself to leave.

"My children have been telling my wife and I that we should leave the island and move with them to the mainland. I've been thinking about it, because of all the noise coming from North Korea, but if we all leave, then what will happen to the island?"

Lee says for now, he'll just keep fixing his gear and be ready for when he can take his fishing boat back out to sea.

DW.DE