Destroyed houses are seen on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, after Tuesday's artillery exchange between North and South Korea. Tuesday's skirmish along the disputed frontier has raised tensions between the rivals to their highest level in more than a decade.
Tensions remain dangerously high on the Korean peninsula after North Korea fired an artillery barrage on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The attack alarmed world leaders and has put the South Korean and U.S. militaries on high alert. NPR's Louisa Lim was on one of the first ferries allowed to land on Yeonpyeong since the bombardment and describes the scene to Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.
The fishing community suffered extensive damage, she says, and most of the residents have fled. And although South Korea seems reassured by America's presence — joint military exercises involving the USS George Washington are scheduled for Sunday — it remains to be seen how North Korea and China will react.
Renee Montagne: Tell us what the island is like now. What did you see?
Louisa Lim: We saw quite a lot of sporadic damage, but it was quite localized. There were a lot of houses that looked totally fine, but then there were others that had been quite badly damaged in the attack. We saw houses that had their roofs torn off, other houses completely gutted by fire. There was a lot of glass on the streets. Many of the houses had had their windows blown out in the attack.
We were only able to stay on the island for a very short amount of time, so we weren't able to go to deep into the island. We have heard that there's a lot of damage that we were not able to see. A military base was apparently destroyed, and villagers living on the island said that they believe public buildings had also been targeted in the attack — the town hall and the health care center have been badly damaged as well.
But now the town is more like a ghost town. There were a lot of helicopters overhead, there were SWAT teams wearing bulletproof vests in the streets, the marines, and a lot of the residents were leaving.
As you say, there is a military base on that island, but tell us about those people, the civilians who live there.
That's right — there were about 1,200 people, maybe a few more than that, living on the island. And yesterday reports had said about 80 percent of those people had left. And I can tell you now, sitting on this ferry, it seems like pretty much all of those who hadn't left yesterday have left today. Even getting onto the ferry, trucks were driving down laden up with suitcases as people are literally fleeing for their lives. There were some people who had already fled who came back just for a couple of hours to collect their belongings, and now they're back on the ferry.
Most of the refugees from the island are going to the city of Incheon. At the moment, the government is putting them up in a bath house ... but it's not really clear what these people will do. Many of them, their homes have been destroyed, and this was a fishing village, so their livelihoods are also in doubt. And they simply don't know what they're going to do now.
Evacuees from Yeonpyeong Island arrive at Incheon port, west of Seoul, on Wednesday, a day after North Korea fired dozens of rounds of artillery onto the South Korean island in the Yellow Sea.
There are joint American-South Korean military exercises scheduled for this coming Sunday. Is that causing more worries about the possibility of more friction and even possibly more attacks?
I think many people in South Korea actually feel quite reassured by the U.S. presence. There are a lot of questions being asked about South Korea's defense capabilities. The local news reports are actually pointing out many of the problems that they've had — apparently half the cannons that were supposed to defend the island of Yeonpyeong were not working, and the laser system was also not working properly. So the origin of the attack, it took quite a long time for them to find out where it was coming from.
So I think people here are quite reassured. But then the big question is really how China and North Korea will respond to these joint exercises. I should point out this is the third time that the U.S. has suggested that an aircraft carrier be deployed to take part in joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, and on the two previous occasions the location of the exercises was changed because of Chinese concerns.
It's unlikely this time perhaps that the U.S. and South Korea will back down. But at the same time, North Korea has been making a lot of threats, saying that the South Korean actions are taking the peninsula to the brink of war, and this kind of thing. So we really are in uncharted territory now.