Jeju to Open Eco-Friendly Naval Base in 2014
By Jung Sung-ki
After years of mudslinging, a project to build a strategic naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju is set to begin later this year after Jeju Governor Kim Tae-hwan last month survived a recall vote over his plan to allow the base.
The local office of the National Election Commission declared the vote invalid as voter turnout came to only 11.1 percent, not even close to the 33.3 percent required.
A coalition of local residents and progressive civic groups are still opposed to the plan, which they argue would cause environmental hazards and harm the image of the "peace island."
Government and Navy officials rebutted the claim, pledging to build a modern naval base that would also be used as a luxury commercial dock as well as an environmentally friendly tourist spot.
"We're sure that the Jeju base will have many positive effects on the island in terms of job creation, tourism, commercial interests and others," a Navy official on Jeju said on condition of anonymity. "In short, the base will not only serve as a military dock but also an eco-friendly tourism hub."
Citing a recent feasibility study, he said that over the next 30 years economic benefits from the commercial use of the naval base will double the current tourism profits of the island.
The benefits will offset the 53.4 billion won needed to allow commercial boats to dock at the port, he added.
Construction of the base is scheduled to start in December after reclamation work and approval by the Self-Governing Jeju Province of a feasibility study on environmental effects. The base is projected to be operational in 2014.
A total of 953 billion won will be spent to build the 480,000-square-meter base adjacent to Gangjeong Village in the southern part of the island.
The base's port will be long enough to accommodate 20 warships and two 150,000-ton cruise liners, according to Navy officials. Tourism sites, including an eco-friendly park, will be built alongside the port, they said.
Strategic Mobile Fleet
The Jeju base will serve as the home port for the Navy's strategic mobile fleet of two Aegis destroyer-led squadrons to be initially operational beginning next year.
The mobile squadrons, which are designed to be rapidly deployed in regional conflict, consist of 4,500-ton KDX-II destroyers, 7,600-ton Aegis-equipped KDX-III destroyers, Type-214 1,800-ton submarines, anti-submarine Lynx helicopters and frigates, among others.
The Navy has two of the planned three KDX-III Aegis destroyers with the lead ship, Sejong the Great, deployed since last December. The second ship, Yi I, was launched last November for commissioning late this year.
The Aegis combat system, built by Lockheed Martin, is the world's premier surface-to-air and fire-control system, capable of conducting simultaneous operations against aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles, ships and submarines. Only a handful of countries, including the United States, Spain, Japan and Norway, deploy Aegis warships.
The KDX-III is one of the most advanced Aegis warships. Its SPY-1D radar can simultaneously track about 1,000 aircraft within a 500-kilometer radius, providing 360-degree coverage.
The squadron is expected to develop the South Korean Navy's blue-water operational capability beyond coastal defense against a North Korean invasion, Navy officials say.
In line with the plan, the Air Force also plans to build a base for a search-and-rescue unit to help facilitate the Navy's operations in the southern waters.
"Jeju has long been considered a tactical, strategic point to secure southern sea lanes for transporting energy supplies and to conduct mobile operations in the case of an emergency in the region," the Navy official said.
"Following the construction, the Navy will be able to successfully conduct long-range operations to protect our commercial vessels in blue waters, including the Malacca Strait, as well as carry out full-scale operations around the Korean Peninsula," he said.
He emphasized that the base makes sense in terms of both military and commercial interests, as the nation`s economy heavily depends on trade, 96 percent of which is transported by sea.
Despite the government's plan for the Jeju base, some local residents backed by progressive civic activists vehemently resist the naval base initiative.
Navy officials claim opponents are making the excessive demand that the central government offer a financial compensation package of about 480 billion won to the local community, in addition to the indemnity of 7.8 billion won already paid to Gangjeong residents for disrupting the fishery industry.
Opponents have argued that the construction doesn't necessarily translate to future economic growth, citing the case of Japan's Okinawa, where American troops are being stationed and the local economy is stagnant.
Some civic activists also raised suspicions of the project being related to the country's joining in the U.S.-led missile defense (MD) system, making Jeju vulnerable to international terrorism and becoming a potential military target for anti-U.S. militants.
The Navy admits that U.S. aircraft carriers can visit the port, but makes clear that it has no plan to join the MD system or make the port a permanent station for U.S. forces.
Supporters of the plan have insisted the naval port will bring economic benefits to local people by inducing a great amount of direct investment into the region from the construction of infrastructure for sailors.