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With tensions between North and South Korea high, border island could be a flashpoint

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that fishermen come to waters near the Northern Limit Line to catch blue crabs and yellow croaker fish. In fact, the yellow croaker population has declined in recent years, and fishermen now go there for the crabs.]


North Korea test-fired cruise missiles on Tuesday - third time that's happened in a week. Both weapons tests and talk of war have driven tensions to a level not seen in years. And in this tense environment, NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited a South Korean island that is a potential flashpoint.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: This is Yeonpyeong Island. We're about 50 miles from the South Korean port of Incheon. We're just less than a mile away from the Northern Limit Line, which is the de facto border separating North and South Korea. And just behind me, you can see a North Korean island manned by soldiers. A contingent of South Korean Marines is based on Yeonpyeong Island to defend it. North and South Korean and Chinese fishermen all come to waters near the Northern Limit Line, or NLL, to catch blue crabs and yellow croaker fish [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION above]. And since the 1990s, North Korea has sold licenses to Chinese fishermen to fish in waters claimed by both Koreas. The two Korean navies fought near the NLL in 1999 and 2002. Retired South Korean Navy captain Yoon Sukjoon thinks that if conflict were to break out again, it could start here between the different maritime borders claimed by the two Koreas.

YOON SUKJOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: The first and second Yeonpyeong sea battles happened, he says, when the two navy's vessels got into skirmishes in between the two lines. And in 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two soldiers and two civilians.


KUHN: That attack is taught as a lesson in national security at an island education center. Local guide An Chilseong says that for many residents, recent North Korean weapons tests bring back memories of 2010.

AN CHILSEONG: (Through interpreter) Whenever there's a thumping or artillery sound, it puts residents on alert. We have a military base here and well-maintained shelter to escape to, so that's reassuring. But we still feel anxious.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: On the ferry between Incheon and Yeonpyeong, I met island resident Choi Ok-seon. She says she and other residents ran to the island's air raid shelters on January 5, when North Korea fired some 200 artillery shells near the island, and South Korea held its own drills in response.

CHOI OK-SEON: (Through interpreter) These past few days, I've been very worried. There are wars going on in other countries, and I'm concerned Kim Jong Un might really decide to do something.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: North Korean state media have recently quoted leader Kim Jong Un as calling the NLL illegal. Pyongyang has never accepted the line, which the U.S. and U.N. drew at the end of the Korean War in 1953 without consulting the North. Retired South Korean Lieutenant General Chun In-bum says the North sees the NLL is encroaching on its territory.

CHUN IN-BUM: And since Kim Jong Un said that he will not allow this to happen, that means the next step is a military confrontation with an actual shooting scenario.

KUHN: Chun argues that a shooting scenario is made more likely by rhetorical bluster coming from Seoul as well. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has threatened to retaliate a thousandfold against the North's provocations.

CHUN: Making it look like a dare - I don't think that's too smart. Maybe it'll make some people here comfortable, but it's making a lot of people uncomfortable as well.

KUHN: Island resident Choi Gyeong-il is one of them.

CHOI GYEONG-IL: (Through interpreter) I am walking around this village thinking, if a shell falls right now, what shelter should I go to? I feel so anxious. It's difficult to go about my everyday life.

KUHN: Choi says that if shells do start falling, he and other residents have bags with emergency supplies packed and ready to go.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.