'Once it was paradise'

By Donald Kirk

INCHEON - Refugees pouring off the last ferries from Yeonpyeong Island described scenes of fiery destruction and vowed tearfully never to return.

"I'm very sorry to leave my hometown," said housewife Choi In Young. "Once it was paradise, now it's hell."

Meanwhile, there were nervous moments back on the island last night where only about 20 civilians out of 1700 remain with 1000 South Korean Marines.

Fresh artillery shots were heard, although it was not known if they were directed at the island.

South Korea's YTN television network, citing an unidentified military official, said North Korea was apparently carrying out a military drill, and had fired up to 20 rounds.

The blasts came hours after Pyongyang said the South's planned military manoeuvres in the region with the US this weekend were bringing the peninsula to "the brink of war".

Choi, greeted by her son at this nearby port city on South Korea's west coast, told of how she feared for her life as North Korean shells roared into nearby homes on Tuesday, setting them ablaze.

"All the windows in my home were knocked out," she said. "My home is still safe, but I saw smoke from houses around me."

The image of an idyllic life on a prosperous island, enriched by the plentiful fish and crabs swarming the surrounding waters of the Yellow Sea, may have been shattered forever by the artillery barrage that killed four people - two South Korean marines and two more civilians whose charred bodies were found in the rubble on Wednesday.

"We felt we were going to die when we heard the shells overhead," said Lee Sun Oh, the wife of a fisherman, who had arrived here with her son and daughter. "We have heard the sounds many times before, but it was always South Koreans on military exercises. This was the first time anyone fired on us."

Lee said she wanted to go back, "but it's not safe" in view of North Korean threats to mount new attacks in response to joint United States and South Korean exercises beginning tomorrow in the Yellow Sea.

"They seem likely to attack again," she said. "We are so scared. Most of the island people are afraid."

By yesterday, public outrage focused on President Lee Myung Bak and his Government for the inadequate response of South Korea's armed forces.

Kim Tae Young stepped down as Defence Minister to become the first political casualty. He was criticised for the military's slow response. Lee Hee Won, a former four-star general who became deputy chief of the US-South Korea Joint Forces Command in 2005, has replaced him.

Kim also tendered his resignation in May after the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors were killed, but the President had asked him to stay on. The Government was also criticised for its slow response to that incident, which was also blamed on Pyongyang.

The Government yesterday said it was sending more troops to Yeonpyeong Island and four other islands just south of the Northern Limit Line, set by the US-led United Nations Command after the Korean War, from below which North Korean ships are banned.

That was far too late, however, for the island's 1700 inhabitants, most of whom by yesterday had already left, traversing the 60km in ferry boats across the windswept seas from which they have been making a comfortable living since the Korean War.

The Defence Ministry was already bolstering defences that consisted at the time of the attack of six artillery pieces, two of which turned out to be inoperable.

The four remaining cannon fired 80 shells in response to the 170 shells fired by the North Korean gunners safely ensconced behind redoubts that South Korean intelligence analysts and forward observers were unable to detect.

Residents said that many had made small fortunes off the crab that are plentiful in the Yellow Sea.

For the people of the island, though, the attack may mean a final ending to their peace and prosperity behind the protective shield of South Korean forces.

Kim Gwang Chun, a crab fisherman, said "everything is suspended and we have no means of making a living here".

As the winds of late autumn send temperatures plummeting, people complained that electricity had failed during the attack - with the prospect of a cold, uneasy winter ahead.

Choi Seng Il, the head of a local citizens' committee, said he doubted if more than a handful of people would choose to stay on in view of the upcoming US and South Korean exercises in which the aircraft carrier USS George Washington is leading an American strike force into the Yellow Sea.

"The weather is getting cold and our houses were destroyed," he said. "We decided it's not going to be possible to live here."

Calling the shots in North Korea

Kim Jong Il, 69

Holds ultimate power over the nation's political and military strategy. Weakened by ill health, believed to be grooming his son Kim Jong Un as his successor.

Kim Jong Un, 29

Third son and political heir apparent to Kim. Political might has risen sharply in the last six months. Recent inflammatory events are thought to be Kim's efforts to prove his son's worth and therefore ensure he succeeds as leader.

Jang Song Thaek, 64

Kim's brother-in-law, vice chairman of National Defence Commission, thought to be the leader's deputy. A long-standing political force widely believed to be the key challenger to Kim Jong Un's succession.

Ri Yong Ho

Chief of staff for the People's Army and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party. Reported to have been second in command for the attack on South Korea earlier this week, as is Kim Jong Un.

- Independent

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