Islanders Aim For Normalcy In North Korea's Shadow

South Korean marines return to a beach on Baengnyeong Island i i

hide captionSouth Korean marines return to a beach on Baengnyeong Island following a search operation to find 46 missing sailors after a mysterious explosion ripped the sailors' ship in half March 26.

Doualy Xaykaothao for NPR
South Korean marines return to a beach on Baengnyeong Island

South Korean marines return to a beach on Baengnyeong Island following a search operation to find 46 missing sailors after a mysterious explosion ripped the sailors' ship in half March 26.

Doualy Xaykaothao for NPR

The South Korean military has suspended a rescue operation to find 46 missing sailors because of bad weather in the Yellow Sea. The missing crew members are thought to be trapped in a small navy ship that went down March 26 after a mysterious explosion split the vessel in half.

The base of rescue operations is Baengnyeong Island, which is about the size of Bermuda and is less than 10 miles from North Korea's west coast. On a recent afternoon, as South Korean recovery divers gathered around rubber boats on the beach, a bitterly cold wind blew.

Situated between the declared enemies, the island's residents try to live their lives as normally as possible — but are among the first to suffer when tensions rise.

On the island's main wharf, a deceptive tranquillity prevails. Half of the 10,000 people on Baengnyeong are soldiers, and even the civilians — male and female — are trained to handle guns, just in case the North Koreans should attack. Fishermen must return to port by nightfall lest they be mistaken for the enemy.

But 22-year-old Kim Dong-joon plays down the danger.

"When the weather is good, you can see North Korea's Hwanghae province from Baengnyeong Island, but that doesn't mean that we think about North Korea all the time," he says. "We live normally like people everywhere else. It's not like we're afraid of North Korea or anything."

But these islanders are the first to suffer economic consequences whenever tensions rise between the two Koreas. Naval clashes in the Yellow Sea have disrupted fishing and discouraged tourists from making the four-hour boat ride from the mainland.

Locals take turns bringing coffee and tea to soldiers involved in the sailor rescue efforts. As U Pil-yeo hands a cup to an officer, her thoughts turn to the missing South Korean sailors.

"It's heartrending. These young men were working hard to defend our island, only to meet with an unfortunate event like this," she says. "When you think of the parents, it really hits home, and because this happened at sea and not on land, they can't even see anything."

On a windy observation deck, on a cliff overlooking the sea, local bed-and-breakfast owner Park Ji-young says some tourists think the islanders don't have any feelings.

"It's not that we don't have feelings, but there's nothing that we can do about it. If the military can't do anything, what can we do?" she says. "All we can do is to live our lives the best we can."

Yoojung Lee and Ganaan Kim contributed to this report

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