South Korea Experiences a Stirring for Revenge
By MARTIN FACKLER
Published: November 27, 2010
INCHEON, South Korea — The explosions from North Korean artillery shells sent Hong Kwang-sun and other members of his construction crew rushing into the basement of their half-finished building on Yeonpyeong Island. As he ran, he saw two workers still standing outside just as another round of blasts engulfed the construction site in flames.
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The next day, searchers found the bodies of the two men. They were burned beyond recognition.
“We never thought they would attack civilians,” Mr. Hong said Saturday as he and other survivors sat somberly drinking soju, an alcoholic beverage, near a makeshift shrine to the two men in this South Korean port city. “North Korean soldiers have full stomachs from our support, and now they repay us by firing at us. Next time, we should repay them by shooting them back.”
The South did shoot back, but many Koreans consider the limited response feeble compared with the hourlong artillery barrage on Tuesday, in which North Korea rained about 180 shells on the island, killing the civilians and two South Korean marines.
The ferocity of the attack and the deaths of the civilians appear to have started a shift in South Koreans’ conflicted emotions about their countrymen in the North, and not just among those who were shot at.
After years of backing food aid and other help for the North despite a series of provocations that included two nuclear tests, many South Koreans now say they feel betrayed and angry.
“I think we should respond strongly toward North Korea for once instead of being dragged by them,” said Cho Jong-gu, 44, a salesman in Seoul. “This time, it wasn’t just the soldiers. The North mercilessly hurt the civilians.”
That is not to say that he or other South Koreans will really push for a South Korean strike; people south of the border are well aware that the North could devastate Seoul with its weapons.
But the sentiments reflect a change of mood in a country where people have willed themselves to believe that their brotherly ties to the North would override the ideological chasm between the impoverished Communist North and the thriving capitalist South.
The attack seemed to challenge one of the underlying assumptions of a decade of inter-Korean rapprochement, which had slowed but not stopped under President Lee Myung-bak: that two nations’ shared Koreanness trumped political differences, making a return to cold war-era hostilities not only undesirable but also impossible.
“I never thought they would attack us people of the same race,” said Hong Jae-soon, 55, a homemaker who fled Yeonpyeong with most of the island’s other 1,350 residents after the attack.
She said she was in her kitchen peeling ginger to make kimchi, the spicy fermented vegetables that are both Koreas’ national dish, when she heard distant booms. As the roar got louder, and the ground began to shake, she ran outside and saw that a home four houses away from hers had been blown into rubble.
“We learned you cannot trust them,” she said.
Chung Young-ae, a 72-year-old fisherwoman who lived her entire life on the island, said she had been hunting for oysters in shallow water when she heard a series of booms, and looked up to see the mountains on fire. “I was 12 during the Korean War, and we saw planes fly overhead, but nothing like this happened,” she said. “This was worse.”
She said she cowered for two days in a cold, dark bomb shelter without blankets and with only bread to eat until she fled the island on a boat to Incheon. She expressed the torn feelings of many South Koreans — anger and a fear of escalating hostilities.
“They’re evil, they’re millipedes that should be crushed,” she said of the North Koreans. “No, we can’t fight them. But we shouldn’t help them anymore, either.”
Like many islanders, she said that while Yeonpyeong had been her lifelong home, she could never go back, for fear of being attacked again. Since the attack, all but a handful of the island’s residents have gone to the mainland.
About 500 were packed Saturday into In Spa World, a hangar-size bathhouse and entertainment center that had been hastily converted into a refugee shelter. Inside, islanders slept on the floors or lined up at a makeshift soup kitchen set up by the volunteers from the Korean Red Cross.
Choi Byung-soo said he was sitting at home with friends having lunch when his neighborhood suddenly erupted in explosions. The blasts blew out his windows. When they ventured outside, he saw a car flipped on its back, and a half-dozen columns of black smoke rose from the town. After arriving in Incheon, Mr. Choi was hospitalized for hearing loss, throat damage from the smoke and anxiety attacks.
“This was a civilian neighborhood, like Seoul,” said Mr. Choi, 34, an online marketer.
He, too, recommended a cutoff of aid to the North, as did the construction worker who watched his colleagues die, Mr. Hong.
“If we had not fed them, they would not even be able to hold their guns,” he said. “We shouldn’t attack them, because we have become a democracy, and I can still remember when we were still like them, poor and eating out of cans. But if we give them any more money, they’ll use it to kill us.”