YEONGDEOK, South Korea — Visitors to this idyllic stretch of coast marvel at the landscapes of emerald sea crashing against steep bluffs and undulating hills quilted with green pines. They stop at seaside restaurants with cheerful red signs advertising the local delicacy, known as bamboo crab, and watch trawlers sail back to picturesque fishing villages.
Yet for many of the people who actually make Yeongdeok (pronounced Young-duck) their home, life has become increasingly gloomy — and solitary. Young people leave to pursue careers in distant cities, and years of overfishing has led to skimpier catches. On weekdays, when the tourists and sightseers have left, loneliness descends.
So in 2010, the 399 mostly older people who made up the population of three villages agreed to give up their land and their centuries-old way of life to make room for something few other places wanted: a nuclear power plant.
Last year, a new mayor in Samcheok called a referendum in which residents voted against the decision made under the previous mayor. When the mayor of Yeongdeok refused to do likewise, residents opposed to the plant began organizing and outside activists poured in. They called a referendum on their own in November.
The government and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company, the country’s operator of nuclear power plants, urged residents not to take part in the referendum, which they called illegal because a state project was not subject to a county-level plebiscite. They also accused the outsiders of bringing antinuclear activism here to impede an important national project.
Yet beneath the calm, tensions simmered.
Residents on both sides of the nuclear question are waiting for parliamentary elections in April, when candidates from Yeongdeok will be asked to take sides.
“Among people here, what the government said used to be the law and truth,” said Kim Eok-nam, 47, who believed his dream of marketing organic farm produce would evaporate with the arrival of a nuclear plant. “But over this nuclear power project, we will show we are no rural pushover.”