As Seoul dithers and US ships circle, an island tries to live with its grief

Donald Kirk reports from a shell-shocked Yeonpyeong Island
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The Independent Online

The sight of a row of charred barstools in front of a scorched counter reminds visitors of the good times enjoyed here until just five days ago, on this once thriving island within easy sight of the North Korean coastline – and her gunners – eight miles away.

The narrow street of shattered shops and homes was strewn with shards of blasted glass windows, twisted walls and broken roofs. People who had lived here until last Tuesday hurriedly visited their homes to pick up a few belongings before returning again to the safety of the South Korean mainland.

"I was in my house when the shelling began," said 80-year-old Chae Suu-yong, back with his wife to grab a few pieces of clothing and stick them into shopping bags before the last ferry of the day to the port city of Incheon, 40 miles to the east. "We fled to a shelter. We don't have a plan to go back."

Like most, if not all, of the 1,700 people who live on this verdant isle, in the midst of the fish-rich waters of the Yellow Sea, Mr Chae has no doubt that Pyongyang means it when it says the Korean peninsula is "on the brink of war" and thinks more attacks are inevitable.

"The North Koreans will attack again," he said with a fatalistic certainty. "We are really afraid to live here."

For a few minutes yesterday afternoon, the fears of a repeat North Korean attack seemed to have been confirmed when ears perked up and a few people dived for cover at the distant sound of artillery shells.

The shells were fired from North Korea, but none landed on the South Korean side of the Northern Limit Line below which North Korean vessels are banned. The best guess of South Korea's defence ministry was that the North was sharpening its aim, engaging in target practice – either that, or punctuating the rhetoric from Pyongyang Radio with appropriate explosions to keep nerves on edge.

While relatives picked through the rubble, the commander of the 28,000 American troops in Korea, General Walter Sharp, visited the island by helicopter, going on a quick walkabout, alternating between expressions of sympathy for the four who died in the attack and the score of wounded and condemnation of the North Koreans.

General Sharp's visit was designed to buck up spirits not only among the island's defenders but also among South Korean leaders who have been in a state of turmoil since North Korean gunners fired 170 rounds into the island.

While General Sharp was on the island, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak fended off criticism for the feeble response to Tuesday's barrage, in which the best the marine defenders could do was pump 80 rounds in the general direction of the North Korean coastline from the island's four cannons.

Mr Lee's first decisive move was to name a new Defence Minister, Kim Kwan-jin, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the South Korean armed forces and a graduate of the Korea Military Academy who has had a series of command positions. He replaces Kim Tae-young, forced out on Thursday in a ritual resignation in which he had to "accept responsibility" for the inadequate defence of the island – and possibly that of South Korea's armed forces.

The new minister faces his first test tomorrow when the US aircraft carrier George Washington leads five American vessels in the Yellow Sea. They will sail about in tandem with South Korean ships, playing war games sure to arouse the North's rhetorical wrath though probably not an armed response.

Stewn with glass, the blasted-out fronts of smart shops and a few cafés hint at pleasant times. Drinks were on shelves, jars of snacks were there for the taking and charred clothes hung in a shop. More than anything, people missed the ambience of an island that never made the tourist brochures and was probably more pleasant for it.

"I was planting trees when the bombs were falling," said Park Yu-san, who said he moved here from North Korea during the Korean War. "My house was destroyed. I was lucky not to be there. It was very calm here, very beautiful. We loved the life here." He said he had never previously had anything against the North Koreans. But since Tuesday, he said, he had thought "they are very cruel".

Inhabitants felt lucky there were not more casualties. Most of the people, he said, were out fishing, looking for oysters in the tidal flat or at the wharf waiting for a boat to come in when the shells began to fall.

In a waiting ferry, a woman suddenly burst into heart-rending screams of grief and anger. She was inconsolable. "Oh Jung-un, why did you do this, why," she said, blaming the attack, as many apparently do, on the ambitions of Kim Jong-un, the probable successor to his ailing father, North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. "I hate you. Why do you make war? We don't want to see war."

The woman's wails rose and fell in an unnerving crescendo. Someone joked that she must be an actress, commissioned to put on a display of grief for swarming photographers. Then, as she was led away, still wailing and shaking, the truth came out. Her son was one of the two marines killed in the barrage – the first casualties of North Korea's only attack on a land target since the Korean War.