Tensions are cooling down on the Korean peninsula two months after North Korea attacked an island that is controlled by the South, as the South has agreed to talk with the North.
Seo-Yeonpyeong Island resident Han Bok Yeo (center) sits with two neighbors in their temporary apartment in Gimpo
Han Bok Yeo welcomed me to her 7th floor apartment in Gimpo City. It’s an hour by train from Seoul and a four and a half hour ride by bus and ferry to her real home on Seo-Yeonpyeong Island, a smaller islet that also came under fire by North Korea on November 23.
The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 killed two South Korean marines and two civilians. Almost all of the island’s 1,500 inhabitants fled to the mainland
Temporary, government funded housing
The 61-year old is now living with several of her island neighbors in this very spacious and modern apartment. There are around 900 islanders at the complex, all paid for by the South Korean government.
"Normally, we just watch TV, some people go to church, sometimes we take walks. But we have a hard time getting used to our new surroundings and all the air pollution here," Han described her current living situation. She said she wants to return to Seo-Yeonpyeong Island as soon as possible.
But after two months of abandonment, most homes on the islands have frozen pipes and busted boilers, said 51-year old Lee Seong-bon. He is a member of a resident's committee that was set up after the evacuation last November. He explained that many problems are making it difficult for the islanders to go back home.
"Government should try harder"
Protesters in Seoul demonstrate against North Korean provocations and South Korean inaction
Lee said, "Temporary shelters on the island are not warm enough to live in. And many homes still have cracks and damage from the North’s shelling. And due to all the snow, water is leaking into many homes." He added that the government should try harder to fix these problems.
However, the government, for its part, says it has already done enough. An official from the South Korean Department of Disaster Management, who did not want to go on record, said the homes on the island were fine. He also complained that the islanders just keep asking for more money.
The government has said it will not give any further compensation and all financial and housing support for them is set to end on February 18. Determined, Lee Seong-bon said the residents will push for an extension of the aid.
Talks might relieve fears
But he is optimistic that at least one concern that the residents have - their safety - might be laid at rest. He hopes that the announced military talks between Seoul and Pyongyang on February 8 will help relieve the fears that some of them have about going home.
South Korea has agreed to hold military level talks with North Korea next week
"Sure, we want an apology from North Korea over the attack," Lee said. "They should also promise that there will be no more future provocations, but we also want a stronger guarantee from the South Korean government that they will better protect the island’s residents."
Back up in the 7th floor apartment, Han Bok Yeo was serving some instant coffee for two of her housemates, both in their nineties. She didn’t seem too concerned whether North Korea apologizes or not for the attack on her home. "I don’t know a lot about these talks and I don’t really care about them," Han said. "I just want to go back to the island, whether it’s a result of these discussions or not."
Author: Jason Strother (Gimpo)
Editor: Anne Thomas