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(Yonhap Feature) Bombing ends, but village still not free from past

All News 09:00 September 12, 2012

HWASEONG, South Korea, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- Lee Young-ja sits alone in her garden preparing vegetables and enjoying silence in a place that for fifty years was plagued by the sound of bombs. Those explosions weren't the sound of active war but practice for one: between 1954 and 2005, two small islets off the coast of Maehyangri Village were used as a bombing range for the U.S. Air Force.

Maehyangri was used by planes from all over Asia, which would come to test high-powered weapons, including F-16 and A10 planes. "You can't imagine the sound of the bombs," said Lee, 82, who has lived her whole life in Maehyangri, a farming and fishing village in Gyeonggi Province near the Yellow Sea southwest of Seoul.

"I used to put my children to bed, then come outside and try to finish my chores. Every time a bomb fell the kids would wake up and I'd have to go back inside to comfort them. Every day we struggled like that."

The Kooni Firing Range finally closed in 2005, but the aftermath has left village residents with new problems. Leftovers from the bombing are gnawing at Maehyangri's ecosystem, but no one is cleaning up, and the residents are not even sure if they want the outside world to find out.

The firing range was not public knowledge until 1988, the year of Korea's democratization. Before that, media coverage on the range was forbidden. The abandoned air traffic control tower still sits looking out of place, peering over fields that grow corn and peppers. While the sound of explosives no longer dominates Maehyangri, the community of around 1,000 residents is still trying to recover from what they described as life similar to that in a war zone.

Before the 2005 closure, residents fought for years to have the range shut down. The resistance movement gained momentum every time an errant bomb killed or injured a Maehyangri resident. Throughout Kooni's time in use, 10 people were killed and more were seriously injured in bombing accidents. In 1967, a pregnant woman lost her life after being hit by a bomb while digging for oysters. The following year, a group of five children was hit with a bomb while playing on the beach. Four of them died from their injuries.

Jeon Man-gyu, 56, has dedicated his adult life to Maehyangri's struggle. Currently the chairman of the Residents' Committee to Found Maehyangri Peace Village, he says that the most tragic legacy of the bombing was the psychological damage it inflicted on the community.

"The bombing created a tense atmosphere. The village has an exceptionally high rate of suicide and there have been lots of fights among the residents," he said.

Jeon himself has a troubled history. In 2006, he kidnapped and stabbed his then wife and mutilated his own body during a marital dispute. In 2009, he was convicted of attacking a Coast Guard officer and taking his wife hostage. He is now divorced.

The U.S. Air Force made no known effort to clean up the countless bombs that were left after decades of practice drills. Used shells would disintegrate and bleed chemicals into the ground and water. In a study of soil in the area, the South Korean defense ministry found lead, cadmium and copper that exceeded permissible levels. The residents collected more than 30,000 rusted pieces of ordnance that are today piled in the village.

The damage to the local ecology is especially problematic for those in Maehyangri who rely on fishing for their livelihood. No one is sure whether it is safe to eat seafood caught in the local waters, so fishermen cast their nets far from their homeport. It is hard for them to sell their products, as some buyers are repelled by fears of contamination when they hear the name Maehyangri, a name inspired by the scent of flowers that blossomed on the plum trees that were once found throughout the area, but are now almost all gone.

This all leaves Maehyangri residents with a dilemma: They want to publicize their plight to put pressure on the government to provide compensation, but residents fear drawing attention to the contamination in the area will make fishermen's products harder to sell.

"The government knows our weakness and they use it to their advantage," said Jeon.

Throughout the discussions that led to Kooni being closed, the government told Maehyangri residents that the range was necessary for national security. The residents now feel that they have sacrificed for the country and deserve compensation.

The villagers' hope is to save their community through the most desperate of measures: tourism. They are now seeking funds from the government to redevelop Maehyangri into a park and recreation area. The hope is that with state assistance, the area can become an attractive leisure spot and provide a source of economic development other than fish and agriculture, one that won't bear the tint of the village's poisonous history.

The local government doesn't have the funds to make this reinvention happen on its own. It would cost 116.7 billion won to purchase the land in Maehyangri and 85.1 billion won to do the groundwork, but the central government has only pledged 42.4 billion won. The remaining 159.4 billion won will need to be paid entirely by the city government

The city's mayor hopes redevelopment will be a new beginning. "We're sure that the park will cure us. What we need government to do is buy the land with public money, help to plant the trees and build streets for us to walk on," said Hwaseong mayor Chae In-seok.

Baek Gi-wan has witnessed the village's history up close and participated from a conflicted position: He was born and grew up in Maehyangri, then spent his career employed by the U.S. Air Force as an air traffic controller at Kooni, guiding planes that flew to Maehyangri to practice bombing.

Baek still lives in Maehyangri and now works as a farmer. "I've been through everything that's happened here," he said.

Baek wears a New York Yankees cap and though he has never lived or worked outside of Maehyangri, speaks English proficiently with a strong American twang. He is talkative and happy to guide a rare visitor to the community he has always called home. But when asked if he ever felt torn in being from the community while earning a living from the bombing range the residents fought against, or about those who lost their lives in bombing accidents, he falls silent.

The Nong Islets, which were the bombing targets for U.S. planes, sit 2 kilometers from the water's edge. They can be reached on foot during low tide. On a bright day with fluffy clouds hanging over the dull brown islets that poke above the sea, high tide obscures the shrapnel that lies scattered throughout the seabed.

Baek worries that the area still isn't safe from the bombs that used to rain down daily. "The area has never been fully cleaned up. We did what we could, but didn't have the equipment needed to get everything out," he said.

Hands on his hips, Baek looks out through the barbed wire fence that still cuts Maehyangri off from the beach and says, "There are still live bombs out there. And somebody's going to have to take care of them."

stevenborowiec@gmail.com
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