South Korea: despatch from the frontline of World War Three

This week’s bombardment from their volatile northern neighbours has left South Koreans tired of turning the other cheek

S.K. Soldier training with U.S. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Andrew Gilligan

Jang Gee-Yeon, a tanker-driver on the island of Yeonpyeong, wasn’t scared at first when the North Korean shells started landing. “We’d been told there were going to be exercises, so I thought it was just a misfire,” he said. “Then I got a call saying it was real. I was in shock. I ran up to the village and it was burning in at least thirty places. There could have been more. The smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see everywhere.”

The island only has one small fire engine, so Jang and his colleagues decided to convert their tanker into a lashed-up pump. “We fixed it up so we could spray water from it,” he said. “I drove. There was nobody else. We got a hose and we put out five house fires and three fires on the mountain above the village. We were looking up the whole time, worried that another bomb would land on top of us.”

If Hollywood ever needs somewhere to start World War Three, Yeonpyeong would be a good choice. North Korea is in plain view, about as far away as Portsmouth is from Ryde. A notice at the ferry terminal warns you to call a hotline number if you see enemy frogmen. On Tuesday afternoon, from an artillery base close enough to be visible through binoculars, the North Koreans launched a rather more direct assault.

A whole street of houses and shops in the village stands charred and ruined. Blackened bar-stools and twisted bicycles show the force of the blast, and even three days later the smell of burning remained. Dogs, some of them wounded, run or limp through the streets, abandoned by their owners in the panic to get away. The village is empty of all but journalists. On the boat back, I spoke to a policeman who collected the bodies of the two civilians killed. “One of them was just a totally burnt-out shell, a skeleton,” he said. “The other was scattered, blown apart.”

According to local media, the North Koreans used “hyperbaric,” or fuel-air, explosives – rare and unusually destructive weapons, only just this side of breaching international law. But then the attack itself, Pyongyang’s first, in its own words, “precisely aimed” land assault on South Korea‘s civilians since the end of the war in 1953, broke wholly new and dangerous ground.

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