By Jung Sung-ki
Groups both for and against the government plan to build a naval base on Jeju Island clashed Wednesday, casting a cloud over the already-long-delayed project.
The conflict occurred as opponents pushed for a new referendum on the construction plan, which was agreed on between the Ministry of National Defense and representatives of the southern village of Gangjeong in May.
A bitter scuffle occured between supporters led by an association of women divers in the village and opponents backed by progressive civic groups.
Navy officials expressed deep concern if the project hits a snag again despite a May agreement.
``After the Ministry of National Defense and the Jeju provincial government agreed to the naval base plan on May 14, opponents created an emergency committee to frustrate the move,'' Lieutenant Commander Kim Tae-ho at the Navy's Jeju Defense Command told The Korea Times. ``We believe progressive civic groups across the nation are systematically backing the opponents.''
The naval base project initiated in 2002 had been postponed due to opposition from locals, and finally got the green light last May.
In an opinion poll of 1,500 Gangjeong residents, 54.3 percent supported the plan, while 38.2 percent were opposed to it, Jeju Gov. Kim Tae-hwan said, announcing the province's final acceptance of the government plan in a press conference.
The Jeju base is expected to serve as a hub for the Navy's ``strategic mobile squadron'' to harbor advanced vessels including 7,600-ton KDX-III Aegis-equipped destroyers and 4,300-ton KDX-II stealth destroyers.
With a budget of $86 million, the Navy aims to complete construction of the base by 2014.
Jeju has long been considered a tactical, strategic point to secure southern sea-lanes for transporting energy supplies and to conduct operations in case of an emergency in Northeast Asia.
The Navy originally wanted to build the base in the southwestern village of Hwasun or southeastern Wimi but dropped the plan due to vehement opposition from local residents.
The Navy says the construction project will bring economic prosperity to local people. Officials say it will foster direct investment into the region. But opponents argue the construction cannot provide clear evidence of future economic growth, citing the case of Japan's Okinawa where American troops are stationed and the local economy is stagnant.
Some anti-U.S. non-governmen activists raised suspicions of the project being related to South Korea's joining in the U.S.-led missile defense (MD) system, which could render Jeju vulnerable to international terrorism and becoming a potential military target for anti-U.S. militants.