A sleepy island of little value - but to North Korea it's a threatening outpost of the South
A South Korean tank overlooks the summit of Baengyeong Island. Photograph: Tom Farrell
Across 16km of sea, the barren hump of North Korea’s Jangsan Cape rises from the mist. Baengnyeong Island has about 4,800 residents, most of them farmers and fishermen, and they are proud of the legend of Simcheong, a local girl who threw herself into these waters to restore sight to her blind father.
Impressed by the sacrifice, an underwater dragon king returned her to land where she eventually became an empress. The legend is related in scrolls, models and audiovisual displays in the small pavilion on the pine-forested summit above the town of Jinchon.
It is possible to imagine the builders hoped its theme of redemption in the face of hardship could find a contemporary echo. But just a few metres away a decommissioned Republic of Korea M48 Patton tank sits on a large rock. Perched on a cliff top is an artillery piece. The gun barrels of both weapons point towards North Korea.
Just after 3 pm, a male voice begins to squawk from a loudspeaker. The message repeats at intervals. Should anyone on the Jangsan Cape pick up the broadcast, it is a warning that Baengnyeong, the northernmost of South Korea’s islands, will “not bow to threats”. The people here have reason to take the threats more seriously than their mainland compatriots, who have mostly reacted with studied nonchalance to the barrage of menacing rhetoric emanating from the North in recent weeks.
“The danger feels real,” says Mrs Ju, who runs a small restaurant. “It’s not just words here.”
Since March, the neophyte dictator Kim Jong-un has ordered 53,000 workers out of a joint industrial park in North Korea, issued warnings to foreign nationals in South Korea and declared an end to the Korean War armistice. But no shots have been fired across the 250-km land border and a number of auspicious dates passed without the expected test-firing of a ballistic missile or a fourth nuclear test.
The maritime border is a different matter. The 1953 armistice failed to find agreement on the specifics of territorial rights in the West Sea and the North failed to recognise its legitimacy.
Shortly after South Korea and the United States Forces Korea (USFK) started their annual joint training exercise, codenamed Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, Kim made a visit to frontline units, including those just beyond the waters off Baengnyeong Island.
On March 11th, Kim called on his Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) troops to “blow up the headquarters” of the Korean Marines on Baengnyeong and ordered the civilian population to leave. Visiting the Wolnae Islet Defence Detachment and the long-range artillery subunit of KPA Unit 641, he urged his men to throw their enemies into a “cauldron” and “cut their windpipes”.
These may not be idle threats. North Korea shelled Yeongpyeong, another West Sea island, on November 23rd, 2010, killing two military and two civilians. Although his ailing father was then in power, Kim Jong-un is believed to have masterminded the attack.
Yet it seems disconcerting that the island should arouse his envy or resentment. From the immense conurbation of Seoul-Incheon, it takes four hours for a ferry to reach the island. Although familiar South Korean logos, such as Samsung, Daewoo, Hyundai and Kia, can be seen on cars and in shop fronts, Baengnyeong has been largely bypassed by the country’s post-1953 industrial boom.
The town of Jinchon is a sleepy place. Few buildings are more than two storeys high and off the main street minutes can pass before a car trundles along. In the evenings, neon pulsates above the few coffee shops and karaoke bars but the effect is rather tacky. There is little to lure potential investors all this distance to within range of North Korean artillery.
There are more than 24 air-raid shelters on Baengnyeong. ROK jeeps are a regular sight on the main roads and in Jinchon, young soldiers amble down the street in the morning and late afternoon.
Despite this, Baengnyeong did attract local tourists. Its natural scenery is exquisite and Korea’s first Christian churches were established there in the 1890s. Unsurprisingly, that was until Kim Jong-un began threatening its residents’ windpipes.
“People don’t want to come now. But there’s so much money to be made here if there was peace,” says a middle-aged businessman who asks not to be named.
At the Yonggpo New Port, close to some rusting tug boats, an excavator is scooping and dumping rocks into metal containers. At the summit a radio tower stands sentinel.
It is not the sights that seem disconcerting this time but the sounds. Rocks crashing on metal can sound like unnervingly like a volley of gunfire.
With North Korea’s KPA a few kilometres away, this serves as a reminder of one of the most persistent fears in the region, that a miscalculation or mistake could escalate into outright conflict. “If there is another provocation such as there was on Yeongpyeong Island in 2010, I think the South Korean military will respond decisively at the time and point of provocation,” says David S Maxwell, a former Special Forces Colonel who spent three years with USFK on the border and now lectures at Georgetown University, Washington DC.
“And miscalculation will occur if Kim Jong-un thinks that the regime and his survival are being threatened.”
About three kilometres beyond the Yonggpo lighthouse, a ROK Navy warship crawls across the horizon. On the other side of the island, an obelisk rises with the bronze masks of 46 sailors ranged around its base.
On March 26th, 2010, eight months before the Yeongpyeong shelling, one the ROK’s Pohang-class corvettes, the Cheonan , broke apart off Baengnyeong Island, with the loss of 46 of its 104 sailors.
A subsequent South Korean-led investigation blamed a torpedo from a North Korean mini-submarine and led to a presidential statement by the United Nations Security Council condemning the attack but not naming North Korea.
The findings were furiously denied by North Korea and dismissed by Russia and China. “The stuff about nuclear war is nonsense,” says Kang Sohn, a business man visiting from Incheon, but “something like [the Yeongpyeong shelling or Cheonan sinking] could happen tomorrow.”