Yeongpyong Islanders: 'Once our home town was paradise. Now it's hell'

Donald Kirk meets the refugees fleeing from the island devastated by North Korea
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Refugees pouring off the last ferries from hapless Yeongpyong Island described scenes of fiery destruction and vowed tearfully never to return.

"I'm very sorry to leave my hometown," said housewife Choi In-young. "Once it was paradise, now it's hell.

Ms Choi, greeted by her son at this nearby port city on South Korea's west coast, said she was inside her home when North Korean shells roared into nearby homes on Tuesday afternoon, setting them ablaze.

"All the windows in my home were knocked out," she said. "My home is still safe, but I saw smoke from houses around me."

The image of an idyllic life on a prosperous island, enriched by the plentiful fish and crabs swarming the surrounding waters of the Yellow Sea, may have been shattered forever by the artillery barrage that killed four people – two South Korean marines and two more civilians whose charred bodies were found in the rubble on Wednesday.

"We felt we were going to die when we heard the shells overhead," said Lee Sun Oh, the wife of a fisherman, who had arrived here with her son and daughter.

"We have heard the sounds many times before, but it was always South Koreans on military exercises. This was the first time anyone fired on us."

Ms Lee said she wanted to go back, "but it's not safe" in view of North Korean threats to mount new attacks in response to joint United States and South Korean exercises beginning on Sunday in the Yellow Sea. "They seem likely to attack again," she said. "We are so scared. Most of the island people are afraid."

By yesterday, public outrage focused on the government of President Lee Myung-bak and his government for the inadequate response of South Korea's armed forces.

The government said it was also sending more troops to Yeonpyeong Island and four other islands just south of the Northern Limit Line, set by the US-led United Nations Command after the Korean War, from below which North Korean ships are banned.

That was far too late, however, for the island's 1,700 inhabitants, most of whom this afternoon had already left, traversing the 40 miles in ferry boats across the windswept seas from which they have been making a comfortable living ever since the Korean War.

By Thursday night, only about 20 civilians were left on the island, now defended by about 1,000 South Korean marines. The defence ministry was already bolstering defences that consisted at the time of the attack of six artillery pieces, two of which turned out to be inoperable.

The four remaining cannon fired 80 shells in response to the 170 shells fired by the North Korean gunners safely ensconced behind redoubts that South Korean intelligence analysts and forward observers were unable to detect.

A South Korean officer said the South Koreans fired their shells at "roads and storage facilities", vaguely-defined targets that were little damaged.

Residents said that many had made small fortunes off the crab that are plentiful in the Yellow Sea, especially at the height of the crabbing season in June.

North Korean fishing boats have occasionally been turned back after intruding south of the Northern Limit Line, but residents said Chinese boats were far more often spotted in South Korean waters. For the people of the island, though, the attack may mean a final ending to the peace and prosperity to which they had long been accustomed behind the protective shield of South Korean forces.

Kim Gwang-chun, a crab fisherman, said "everything is suspended and we have no means of making a living here".

As the winds of late fall send temperatures plummeting, people complained that electricity had failed during the attack – with the prospect of a cold, uneasy winter ahead.

Choi Seng-il, the head of a local citizens' committee, said he doubted if more than a handful of people would choose to stay on in view of the upcoming US and South Korean exercises in which the aircraft carrier USS George Washington is leading an American strike force into the Yellow Sea.

"The weather is getting cold and our houses were destroyed," he said. "We decided it's not going to be possible to live here."

Palin: We will stand by 'our North Korean allies'

Sarah Palin has drawn criticism from around the world after declaring that the United States has to stand with "our North Korean allies".

Palin's gaffe, made during an interview on Glenn Beck's syndicated radio show, was quickly corrected by her host. But it drew immediate fire from liberal bloggers, who cited it as an example of the 2008 vice-presidential candidate's lack of foreign policy expertise.

Newspapers in Asia and Europe are repeating the criticism. The Times of India says Palin "did it again". The conservative US website The Weekly Standard came to Palin's defence, pointing out that "she correctly identified North Korea as our enemy literally eight seconds before the mix-up". AP