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Island faces North Korean threat up close

From Matthew Chance, CNN
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Tue March 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tensions between North Korea and the South have risen recently
  • It is particularly felt on Yeongpyeong Island, South Korea
  • The island is a stone's throw from North Korea and was attacked three years ago
  • Residents try to live their lives as best they can

Yeongpyeong Island, South Korea (CNN) -- It is easy to dismiss North Korea's threats against South Korea as bluster, unless you're on this island, within sight of North Korean waters.

The residents of Yeongpyeong Island, like any other South Koreans, do their best to make ends meet, in their case mostly by fishing and trapping crabs.

But they live in the shadow of a belligerent North Korea, a mere four miles away.

Angered by tougher U.N. sanctions and joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea, Pyongyang has issued a range of bombastic threats in recent weeks.

Yeongpyeong Island, South Korea

The slew of fiery rhetoric from Pyongyang has included threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea, as well as the declaration that the armistice that stopped the Korean War in 1953 is no longer valid.

Those who live here worry about the poor weather that is dampening this year's fishing season; they also fear that their homes could be shelled.

It's happened before.

North Korea shelled Yeongpyeong Island in November 2010, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. There was no warning. Shells just rained down on the small island, causing widespread panic and destruction.

The memories of the attack are still fresh.

U.S. lowers bar for North Korea attack
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North Korea invalidates armistice

A few of the destroyed houses have been preserved as a reminder that visitors can see. There are scorched walls, some of them pockmarked with shrapnel and broken glass. Family rooms that were burned out have been left empty. It's a memorial to those who lost their lives, but also a reminder of the danger that North Korea poses to the South, and this community in particular.

"It's been almost three years, and I remember how my heart sank when I witnessed the attacks. Now we are hearing more threats, and I am having this feeling in my chest all over again," said Kang In-Gu, a Yeongpyeong resident.

The fear was made worse by recent images of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, being feted by the same artillery units that carried out the strike. Their attack is portrayed as a military victory that could be repeated, adding to pressure on South Korea to respond with tough action next time.

"If the North were to carry out another provocation like in 2010, I personally hope that my government will respond very strongly. By doing this, the North will not see South Korea as an easy target but as a strong country instead," Kang said.

Yeongpyeong Island is a two-hour ferry trip from the South Korean mainland, but the sentiment among residents is that they will not flee.

This is the only home they know, another resident said. Also, evacuating can be costly to the majority working-class residents.

A mix of economics and loyalty keeps them here. In fact, many residents won't talk on the record to reporters, for fear of further upsetting the island's popularity among tourists.

Most observers say North Korea is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile, but it does have plenty of conventional military firepower, including medium-range ballistic missiles that can carry high explosives for hundreds of miles.

The heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula came after the North carried out a long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test last month, prompting the U.N. Security Council to step up sanctions on the secretive government.

Nowhere are those tensions felt stronger than on this island.

CNN's Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.

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