“This Is Not a Test:” Yeongpyeong, Media Discourse, and Local Experience Today

By | April 02, 2013 | 2 Comments

The citizens of the North may be subject to air raid warnings and live in fear of nuclear strike, but daily life continues as normal for civilians in the bustle of the South Korean capital city, where national media even feels comfortable enough to satirize the tension. There seems to be a tacit assumption here that attack on Seoul would ensure swift retaliation, and so if there were an intentional attack, it might occur near one of ROK’s numerous tiny islands. With the recent memory of the Cheonan incident in March 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong in November that same year, some see the Yellow Sea as a potential target. Such is the strain of most South Korean journalistic discourse, which would have you believe that residents of the island live their days “scared out of their wits.”

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The streets of Yeonpyeong Island emptied following a mistakenly broadcast warning announcement. | Image via SBS News.

While the international media is consumed by speculations of what might results from the confrontational rhetoric from both sides of the DMZ, testimonies from people living “in the crosshairs” have been all but excluded from the discourse. A closer examination of the situation from the perspective of the residents on the front lines is certainly warranted. After all, whether empty blustering or imminent threat, citizens of both Koreas continue to live their lives simultaneously underneath and apart from the rhetoric of their state and military leaders.

Indeed, there are some news outlets that have mentioned some real repercussions on the local level to Yeonpyeong Island residents. According to the Joongang Daily, on March 21 at 11:45 a.m. the Yeonpyeong Township Office  mistakenly broadcasted an emergency warning via the village broad system speakers. The warming message, “This is not a test. Citizens, please take refuge,” [실제 상환입니다. 주민 여러분은 대피해 주십시오]  sent hundred of citizens running for shelter.

The security concerns have already threatened the local economy as well, The Chosun Ilbo claims that soldiers are on alert, tourism is down, and the upcoming crabbing season may be threatened. This now has fishermen worried for their immediate livelihood, reported Yonhap, as the south side of Yeonpyeong accounts for nearly 25% of Incheon area’s annual crab haul.

There may be one more unwelcome impact on the local residents caused by the influx of media personnel. SisaIn reporter Song Ji-hye, through an even more local narrative of the current situation on the island, demonstrates that the journalists’ presence may be serving an agenda separate from reporting the actual attitudes of those civilians ostensibly on the front lines. Turning the eye on the role of reporters and members of the press calls into question the narrative promoted by South Korean mass media.

The narrative arises over a large and sudden resurgence of media attention to Yeonpyeong Island, which can be reached from Incheon by boat in about two and a half hours. The island is 80 kilometers from Incheon, but falls only 12 kilometers from the DPRK coastline. The population hovers around 1,800 people. Contrast these figures with a recent influx of media teams. Around forty members of the press came out to Yeonpyeong Island this past weekend. The previous weekend around 60-70 reporters visited. There are so many reporters that finding accommodations is difficult, according to Song’s account. According to one convenience store clerk interviewed in the story, “Whenever North and South Korea confront each other, the reporters flock here and everything runs out of stock quickly.”

The citizens here seem wary of the members of the press with “nothing to do,” and Song’s story is surfeit with anecdotes of teams of reporters sitting around and drinking soju or beer in the afternoon, waiting for something newsworthy to occur. Some of the residents claim the reporters come here with their own agenda and overlook the reality of the locals’ situation.

The only people greeting the reporters are the guesthouses and restaurants. Of the reporters coming out to Yeonpyeong, one convenience clerk said, “Seeing the border between outsiders and locals, citizens [here] never believe the news.” The reporters have dinner at a restaurant by the shore, and about four local residents left the restaurant. Already tipsy from soju, there came a shout of, “For goodness sake, tell the truth.”

In constructing such a narrative, the local residents accuse the reporters of targeting older residents, who remember real threats differently than younger people there:

“Why do we hate reporters? Young people just want to live quietly so they don’t do interviews. So you cleverly coax the elderly to do interviews about only what you want to hear. I’m really angry,” said local resident Ah Mu-gae.

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In the absence of any newsworthy developments, Korean reporters who have flocked to Yeonpyeong, interview schoolchildren, which has led some locals to assert that the mass media is instigating fear. | Photo via SisaIn Live.

The ambivalence toward an actual North Korean threat on the island may be generational, as the youngest generation may not even recall the shelling three years ago:

To one reporter’s question of whether North Korea is scary, Yeongpyeong Elementary School sixth-grader Ha Yeon-I (alias) shook her head from side to side. “Reporters are scarier. Our neighborhood survived, but reporters keep chasing after us to my friends all run away.” Whatever questions the reporter asks, Ha Yeon-I just keeps flipping through photos of a popular K-pop singer on her smartphone.

Yet again seen less as a threat and more as an annoyance, the residents interviewed in Song’s piece indicate at least some of them may choose to focus on the actual activities of the individuals rather than listening to the narrative constructed by the South Korean mass media. The apparent disconnect between the reporters’ accounts and the decoding of the message by locals provides us with the opportunity to complicate the assumptions embedded in South Korean and international media discourse. Tolerating the threat, the citizenry assumed to be most at risk may be just as, if not more, concerned with the influx of members of the press and increased press coverage than they are about the content of the discourse produced.

Blog by: Darcie Draudt

2 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece! Though, I am curious: Is this a common trend in all South Korean mass media or only as it pertains to North Korea?

    Either way, its problematic since many top international news agencies simply copy-paste the narratives “represented” or re-presented in these “primary sources,” stoking more international fear, and perhaps even perpetuating the military-industrial complex among some of the important decision-makers whom subscribe to those news agencies.

    Surely though, my assumption could be ripe with error. However, great article nonetheless!

  2. As I mentioned in my Baekryeong Island piece, the only really watertight argument left for engagement with North Korea is the one about ruined livelihoods south of the 38th, which is what makes it a “trope” in leftist discourse on North Korea at this point.

    Proof that this is very much a political endeavour (rather than an anthropological or sincerely intended one) can be seen in the final paragraph of the Baekryeong piece (I’m using the English translation here for expediency):

    “On the coast of Yeonhwa village is the Cheonan Memorial Rock. It looks down on the waters where the boat went down three years ago, but it bears no trace of the tragedy of that day. Had North and South Korea formed the special West Sea peace and cooperation zone agreed upon at their October 2007 summit, would there now be a steady stream of boats now heading from Incheon to Haeju? Would the tragedies of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island have been avoided altogether? Peace looked farther away than ever on this island of conflict. Signs of hope were hard to come by.”

    The attempt to implicitly, and without recourse to any evidence whatsoever might I add, connect engagement and peace is fascinating (and, IMHO, extraordinarily ignorant of both history and North Korean operational methodologies).

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