YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea—For decades, this speck of South Korea-controlled territory, which sits 2 miles from North Korean soil in waters claimed by Pyongyang, has been a flashpoint.
But the island now embodies hopes of rebuilding trust between the two sides, following an agreement to formally end military hostilities along the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to the relaxation in military posture during their summit meeting in Pyongyang in September. The measures took effect Thursday after South Korea’s government ratified the agreement, formally making it law.
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Yeonpyeong Island, where tensions have flared up most dramatically in recent years, is a symbol of those efforts. Roughly 40 miles off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, the island served in 2010 as the backdrop for one of the deadliest exchanges of military hostilities between the two Koreas in recent memory. North Korea fired on the island, killing four South Koreans.
Months earlier, North Korea had sunk a South Korean naval vessel in waters nearby, killing 46 servicemen.
The waters off the west coast are arguably the most dangerous part of the inter-Korean border, which largely tracks the 38th parallel on land before spilling over into the disputed waters that surround a sprinkling of small islands, including Yeonpyeong.
In a reflection of their importance, Mr. Kim visited the Pyongyang-controlled islands that are just a few miles from Yeonpyeong in 2016 and again in 2017, according to South Korean defense officials.
To showcase the new atmosphere of detente, South Korean military officials brought a handful of reporters to the island on Thursday, where clear skies and a sense of calm reflected residents’ hopes for a less bellicose relationship.
Autumn leaves colored the mountainsides along the beach, while children frolicked in the playground of one of the island’s two kindergartens.
Even so, concern over North Korea and its intentions remains deep-seated.
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“We have hope that improvement in relations with North Korea will bring real peace,” said Park Tae-won, a 58-year-old fisherman who has lived on the island of about 2,200 civilian residents for his entire life. “But to be honest, I don’t trust the North Koreans to respect the peace. They can change in an instant.”
Members of the 1,500-strong South Korean marine garrison that defends the island said that prospects for peace have increased with the detente. But they are still preparing for the worst, including the threat of a surprise amphibious assault by North Korean troops stationed just across the water.
In a display of lingering tensions, homes that were shattered during the November 2010 artillery attack have been largely left as they were, with sinks, tile and broken glass scattered across the ruins.
“I was shocked,” Mr. Park said as he remembered the day, adding that the island had been left largely unscathed even during the 1950-53 Korean War. “And I remain fearful of another attack today.”
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In SEOul on Thursday, South Korean government officials, including national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, touted the significance of the inter-Korean military agreement, saying it removed the specter of war by explicitly putting an end to military actions “on the land, sea, and air.”
The agreement bars major military drills near the demilitarized zone, establishes a no-fly zone and bans live-fire exercises on the maritime border, including the waters near Yeonpyeong Island. It also lays out plans for a gradual disarmament along the DMZ.
The deal has stirred concern among conservatives in SEOul who say it undermines South Korea’s intelligence-gathering activities at the border, leaving the country exposed to a surprise attack. Lawmakers have complained that the Moon administration ratified the agreement without approval from the legislature.
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On Friday, South Korean defense officials said North Korea had left at least one of its coastal artillery batteries in position and ready to fire, a violation of the pact. They said they had alerted the North to the violation and that hours later that no action had been taken by Pyongyang.
U.S. Marines from expeditionary units trained with their South Korean counterparts on the island most recently in April, as part of an exchange program. The program has been on hold since early summer, when President Trump declared in Singapore after meeting Mr. Kim that he would suspend military exercises with South Korea, calling the exercises provocative and expensive. SEOul officials said the combined exercises may resume in December.
On Yeonpyeong, South Korean marines carry out four drills a day, simulating a surprise North Korean artillery barrage. The goal is to counter any North Korean attack within five minutes using K-9 self-propelled artillery guns.
The drills’ objective is to develop muscle memory “so that the body knows what to do even when you can’t think in combat situations,” a marine explained.
The daily drills, which aren’t covered by the military agreement and will continue, serve as a reassurance for residents like Mr. Park, the fisherman, who worries that the South Korean garrison could soon leave the island altogether.
“If they go, then we go,” he said.
Write to Andrew Jeong at [email protected]
Source : WSJ