RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
On the Korean peninsula, tensions remain dangerously high in the aftermath of an artillery barrage fired by North Korea on a South Korean island. The attack alarmed world leaders and put the South Korean and U.S. military on high alert. Today, as part of the political fallout, South Korea's defense minister resigned, amid criticism of how the government responded to the bombardment. The island itself has been off-limits until now, but NPR's Louisa Lim managed to board one of the first ferries allowed to land there since last Tuesday's shelling.
She joins us now on the ferry, after a visit to the island. Good morning, Louisa.
LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And tell us what the island is like now. What did you see?
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 had their roofs torn off, other houses completely gutted by fire. There was a lot of glass on the streets. Many of the houses have 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 too deep into the island. So, 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 believed public buildings had also been targeted in the attacks - the town hall and the health care center had been badly damaged as well.
But now this town is more like a ghost town. There were a lot of helicopters overhead, there were SWAT teams wearing bulletproof vests in the streets, and Marines, and a lot of the residents were leaving.
MONTAGNE: Well, as you say, there is a military base on that island, but tell us about those people, the civilians, who live there.
LIM: That's right. There were about 1,200 people, maybe a few more than that, living on the island. And yesterday reports have 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 and people that 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 bathhouse in the city of Incheon. But at the moment, 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.
MONTAGNE: Now, 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?
LIM: Well, I think many people in South Korea actually feel quite reassured by the U.S. presence. There were a lot of questions being asked about South Korea's defense capabilities. The local news reports were 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 their 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 that 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 unchartered territory now.
MONTAGNE: And so, of course, we'll be talking you as this story moves forward. NPR's Louisa Lim on a ferry off the coast of South Korea. Thanks very much.
LIM: Thank you, Renee.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.