Protestors, authorities on collision course in Gangjeong Village
Villagers and civic group members protesting the construction of a naval base confront war veterans and other proponents of the project as police form a blockade to separate the two sides from clashing in Gangjeong Village, Seogwipo, Jeju Island, Friday. / Yonhap
By Kim Tae-jong
Jeju Island is in the eye of a storm as longstanding conflicts reached a boiling point over a plan to build a naval base in a small village on the nation’s largest island.
Concerns are increasing over possible violent physical clashes breaking out between the opponents of the project and the authorities, as military and government officials slowly run out of patience.
On Friday, some 500 members from a coalition of conservative groups such as the Korea Veterans Association (KVA) and the Retired Marine’s Union in support of the project confronted more than 200 residents and civic group members opposing the construction of the naval base in Gangjeong Village.
They were able to avert violence after two hours of confrontation as police kept each side at bay.
Concerns remain that a violent clash may yet be in store as both sides show no signs of backing down.
Since Gangjeong Village was chosen as the site for a naval base in 2007, villagers, mostly farmers and fishermen, along with civic groups have been strongly against it.
The Navy recently announced it will soon resume construction and the government has pledged to suppress protesters.
Villagers won’t back down
But the villagers won’t budge. They say they will continue to struggle until the project is canceled.
“We just demand the project be stopped,” Kang Dong-gyun, leader of the village, said. “We will never step back from protecting the peace and environment of our village.”
Villagers and civic groups argue the construction will cause environmental problems and harm the nature of the peaceful island.
They criticize the authorities, arguing the provincial government made a formal bid for the base construction in the name of 87 “residents’ representatives” in April 2007 without establishing a community-wide consensus, while most villagers would have rejected it, they said.
The four-year conflict is drawing greater attention from outsiders, including politicians. On Saturday, leaders of the five opposition parties promised to abolish the project.
“We will do our best to make the village a site for a peace park instead of a naval base,” said Rep. Chung Dong-young, an executive member of the opposition Democratic Party, at the rally. “The naval base will only lead to a severe conflict between the U.S. and China in the East Asian region.”
Activists from civic groups have also raised allegations that the new base is linked 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.
“It’s obvious the construction of the huge naval base in Jeju can intimidate China and other countries, which are in dispute with the U.S.,” said Cheong Wook-sik, head of the Peace Network, a civic group. “It can only have a negative impact, especially on the relationship between Korea and China.”
He said the U.S. will take advantage of the naval base in its ambition to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the strong opposition, however, the Navy has recently erected three-meter-high walls along the 1.6-kilometer perimeter of the site to ban protesters from entering and disturbing construction.
In the process, villagers who damaged the building site have been apprehended and three of them are now in jail. The provincial authorities also filed a suit against 14 villagers for 290 million won in compensation.
The Navy strongly refutes the claims of residents and activists, arguing that the naval base will be built in an eco-friendly manner. They also emphasize it will help boost the local economy and bolster coastal defense.
“The project has been stuck for the past four years, only resulting in snowballing losses,” a Navy official said, refusing to give his name. “They are raising groundless allegations, and they have simply occupied the site illegally to create tension.”
The base's port will be long enough to accommodate 20 warships and two 150,000-ton cruise liners. It will also be used as a luxury commercial dock as well as an environmentally friendly tourist spot, he said.
A total of 977 billion won will be spent to construct the 480,000-square-meter base by 2014, with over 130 billion won having been spent already, the official said, adding, “There will be no turning back unless serious flaws are detected.”
In a related move, former floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) Kim Moo-sung has recently criticized the villagers and civic groups opposing the project, accusing them of being “pro-North.”
“I think the opposition against the construction can be seen as pro-North activity,” Kim said during a party meeting on July 27. “The project has been pending for four years now and the government authorities should strictly enforce the law.”
His remark is also in line with the stance of the government.
In his visit to Jeju Police Station on July 21, National Police Agency Commissioner Cho Hyun-oh requested that the police take action against any illegal practices by people preventing the project from progressing.
Seeking a solution
Experts say that the government should first recognize the gravity of the situation before taking any legal action.
“I don’t think the government properly understands the seriousness of this matter, and it seems they’re only trying to solve this problem with suppressive measures,” said Park Tae-soon, the chief director of the Institute of Social Conflict. “The first step is, they should recognize the existence of the serious conflict between civilians and the authorities, central and provincial governments, and even between villagers.”
He also said that the government must first halt construction and show it is ready to talk with villagers.
“I’m not saying we should abolish the project right now, but if the government wants to try to persuade villagers through talks, they must first stop the construction. Villagers won’t understand if they push forward with the plan and ignore them. It simply leads to more serious clashes,” he said.