YEONPYEONG ISLAND, SOUTH KOREA – North Korea’s fatal artillery attack on the border island of Yeonpyeong over two years ago uprooted old wooden houses from their foundations. One shell punctured the concrete side of a soccer stadium, another struck a rooftop oil tank. Residents rushed to underground bunkers, and when they emerged hours later, much of their isle was aflame.
Among dozens of North Korean provocations against its neighbor over decades, the shelling of Yeonpyeong, which killed two South Korean Marines and two construction workers, is far from the deadliest or most audacious. But it carries oversize importance as tensions again soar between the two Koreas, because it redefined the South’s thinking about how strongly its military should respond if attacked again.
South Korean officials cite Yeonpyeong as an instance in which their forces returned fire too late and too timidly — a mistake they pledge will not be repeated. If faced with a similar assault, President Park Geun Hye has told her military to strike back “without political consideration” and without waiting for top-level approval.
South Korea’s hardened line, analysts say, provides an important backdrop as Pyongyang threatens the region — and the United States — with nuclear and more small-scale artillery attacks. The prospect of a South Korean counterstrike, the analysts say, might explain why the North hasn’t made good on any of its recent threats. But it also means that if it does attack, the conflict is far likelier to escalate.
Seoul’s new stance is not just rhetorical. After the Yeonpyeong shelling, the South revised its rules of engagement, allowing frontline commanders to “take aggressive action . . . and then report it up the chain of command,” Lee Myung Bak, president from 2008 until this year, recently told a major South Korean daily. Lee added that the United States was initially opposed to the rule changes.
Although the U.S. has about 80,000 troops in the region, with 28,500 of them in South Korea, it would be up to the South to defend itself in the opening minutes of a North Korean attack. Still, Seoul and Washington recently drew up what they call a “counterprovocation” plan that lays out potential responses to attacks by Pyongyang.
The goal of the plan, Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. troops in the Pacific, told Congress last week, is to ensure that responses are “predictable” and to prevent an “unnecessary escalation that none of us want.”
A majority of South Koreans support a strong response to any attack from their neighbor, but Yeonpyeong, just 11 km from North Korea, represents the emotional heart of that sentiment. Residents on the island talk about the North as an archenemy, one overdue for revenge.
“They’re bastards,” said Park Myeong Seon, 68, a grandmother of three. “They attacked civilians.”
Yeonpyeong has long hosted a unit of South Korean Marines, and it is heavily fortified with underground bunkers and camouflaged firing areas. But before the shelling, few of its 2,000 residents thought they were under threat. The island was famous because it was so difficult to leave: The daily ferry to the mainland is canceled even in moderate winds.
On the afternoon of Nov. 23, 2010, North Korea briefly turned the island into a war zone. In the span of an hour, according to independent and South Korean government reports, the North lobbed 170 shells and rockets toward the island.
Many fell in the sea, missing their target. But some struck the hillside military areas and shoreline rows of one-story homes. The municipal loudspeaker system, piped throughout town, urged residents to flee underground.
South Korea’s military on the island didn’t respond until 13 minutes after the strike had started. Its heaviest weapons had been facing south, for firing drills, and needed to be turned around. The South eventually fired 80 shells at the North, aiming at its army barracks and command areas. It remains unknown whether the counterstrike caused any casualties.
The slow response was perplexing because South Korea had been warned of the attack. That morning, Pyongyang had sent a telegram to Seoul saying that its army would not “sit idly by” as South Korean troops shot practice rounds of artillery into contested border waters that the North considers its own.
South Korean officials said later that they didn’t take the warning seriously.
“The content of the warning was almost the same as previous warnings given when we were conducting shooting drills,” then-Defense Minister Kim Tae Young testified to the National Assembly.
The waters surrounding Yeonpyeong and several other nearby South Korean islands have become perhaps the most dangerous place on the peninsula. Pyongyang disputes the maritime border that zigzags north of the islands and was drawn up unilaterally by a United Nations Command officer at the end of the Korean War. In 1999, North Korea announced a maritime line of its own — one that digs far deeper into South Korean waters.
Since then, this small slice of the Yellow Sea has been the site of several fatal clashes, with occasional firefights between vessels and the March 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean ship by a North Korean minisubmarine.
Since the Yeonpyeong incident, Seoul has made an effort to bulk up its military strength in the Yellow Sea. It stationed an additional 1,000 marines on Yeonpyeong, bringing the contingent’s strength to 3,000. It also created a headquarters office to monitor the islands in the region.
Across the border, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has since March visited several of the military units that keep watch on those islands, telling his troops to “drive the enemy into a fire pit if so ordered.”
But South Korean military personnel on Yeonpyeong say they do not pay close attention to media coverage of the broader tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They face Internet restrictions during their service time on the island, and their days are shaped by monotony, not frenzy.
“It feels like I’m living in the past,” said Kim Min Chin, 22, among the handful of air force members stationed on Yeonpyeong. “After 6 p.m., nothing happens. All the lights are off.”
But Kim added, “If they attack, we are fully prepared.”
It’s only on the two-hour ferry rides to and from the island that the troops get a dose — if they want — of the North’s latest war rhetoric.
On a recent trip from the mainland to Yeonpyeong, about 100 South Korean Marines sat in the lower deck. Two flat-screen televisions showed an afternoon talk show, on which three professors from the South and one government official discussed whether North Korea would soon launch a midrange rocket or carry out an attack.
All but five or six of the marines were sound asleep.