South Korean refugees struggle after shelling

A South Korean fisherman whose neighborhood was swallowed by flames in last week's North Korean shelling saw a TV image of the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, and cringed.

"I want to kill him," said Kwak Yong-sun, who now lives on the floor of a public bath house on the mainland. "I almost died because of that man."

Kwak, 50, sleeps shoulder to shoulder with other evacuees from Yeonpyeong Island on a mattress in a huge room in the spa, which has been converted into a refugee center.

He complained of noise, stale air and a lack of sleep. "It's not a place where human beings can live," he said.

The Nov. 23 artillery barrage killed four people — two South Korean marines and two civilians — and sharply raised tensions on the divided peninsula.

The United States and South Korea on Wednesday ended military exercises that included the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The drills were meant as a warning to the North following last week's exchange of artillery fire.

At the heavily armed Panmunjom village inside the Demilitarized Zone north of Seoul, a North Korean soldier said in a rare interview that he hoped for peace.

Lt. Choe Song Il told Associated Press Television News that he hoped tensions between the two countries would be eased "as soon as possible, in a peaceful way."

"I know that there were casualties on the South side," Choe told an APTN crew from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang that he had been assigned to escort to the Demilitarized Zone.

"I hope that such military conflict between North and South should never happen again," he said.

It was unclear whether his conciliatory comments were spontaneous or not, and whether they merely reflected one soldier's opinion or were meant to reflect the military's stance as a whole. North Korean citizens usually are very careful about expressing opinions.

They were striking words at a time of heightened tensions between the Koreas and a departure from the bellicose rhetoric of North Korea's state-run news agency, which has threatened "full-scale war" this week if the country's territory is violated by any military maneuvers.

South Korean intelligence chief Won Sei-hoon told lawmakers that North Korea is likely to strike again, Yonhap news agency reported.

Won said in a briefing that North Korea likely carried out last week's attack in part because it needed a "breakthrough" amid internal dissatisfaction over a plan to transfer power from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son, according to Yonhap. His comments could not immediately be confirmed.

To ease tensions, China pressed for an emergency meeting in coming days among the six nations who previously negotiated over North Korea's nuclear program — the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.

"The parties concerned should keep calm and exercise restraint, and work to bring the situation back onto the track of dialogue and negotiation," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in Beijing, according to the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency.

After walking away from the six-nation talks in April 2009, Pyongyang has shown it is eager to restart them to gain much-needed fuel oil and aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament. But Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are wary of talking with the North.

Seoul says North Korea must show real commitment to disarm. It noted that the North has gone in the wrong direction with its revelation last month of a new uranium enrichment facility that would give North Korea a second way to make nuclear bombs.

As they spoke about the terror they felt from North Korea's shelling, the refugees in the port of Incheon struggled over what they will do next with their lives. Some want to settle in Incheon, while others want to go back to their villages alongside military bases on the island, said city spokesman Im Won-jong.

The city of Incheon, which has jurisdiction over Yeonpyeong Island, has requested 41.5 billion won ($36 million) from the central government to modernize shelters and buy equipment, including new boats for the fishermen. There are no estimates of how much is needed to rebuild.

Only a few hundred residents, officials and journalists remain on the island, which formerly housed about 1,300 civilians.

Park Kyu-don, 74, said she's too scared to return, still haunted by images of "artillery shells hitting my hometown." She said the government must do something soon for the refugees.

"How much longer do we have to stay here?" she said.

Kim Min-hak said he suffers dizzy spells and longs for clean air and a good night's sleep. Although many of his neighbors plan to stay in Incheon, Kim says he'll join the near-daily trickle of people returning to the island to salvage items from homes.

He hopes to save what he can from a two-story brick house that is half-collapsed and a destroyed shop that sold rice, ship fuel and animal feed.

"You cannot image how painful it was," he said, tears in his eyes. "It's the house I built 25 years ago."


Associated Press writer Kim Kwang-tae in Seoul contributed to this report.