By Lee Tae-hoon
JEJU - Tension is rising here as police in uniform and plainclothes can be easily spotted near a naval base construction site in Gangjeong, a small fishing town on this resort island, signaling an impending clash with protestors.
Observers say the government will likely crack down on anti-base villagers and activists early next month as the Jeju District Court decided Monday to give one week to voluntarily remove barricades and other obstructions at the stalled building site.
The court ruled in favor of the Navy, which has been seeking to build an additional base in Jeju Island since 1993, by accepting an injunction that the government filed to strictly prohibit protestors’ occupation of the 480,000-square-meter area.
The court made it clear that should demonstrators disturb the construction project worth 978 billion won ($920 million), they will be slapped with a 2-million-won fine each time.
“Police will soon block both sides of a crossroad, which has been unlawfully occupied by protestors and is connected to the construction site, and begin to pull them out one by one in order to resume work,” a naval officer said on condition of anonymity.
“We have to remove them all because it will be too dangerous for them to stay, as they may be injured by blasting or other building work.”
Related ministries declared that they will not tolerate a further delay caused by activists, saying their patience is running out and people from outside the village are blamed for growing opposition to the project.
“The government respects the court’s latest decision and believes that such an important national project should no longer be further delayed,” Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Minister Kwon Do-youp said in a statement Wednesday.
“We strongly urge outside groups to halt their opposition activities by themselves considering that conflicts are escalating among Gangjeong residents.”
Those opposing the naval base control a three-way road that leads to the “peace camp” they set up on the coastal side of the planned construction site.
Protesters, including former lawmaker Hyun Ae-ja of the Democratic Labor Party, have been staging a tent sit-in at the entrance of the road with metal chains binding their bodies near a watchtower made of bamboo, which can either be used to make spears or be set fire to.
Some 60 people from outside the village, including members of progressive and environmental groups, have been staying there to deter the construction of the base.
“We’d like to reiterate that the civilian-military port project must be pursued for the sake of national security interests as it helps us secure southern maritime routes as well as the development of Jeju Island and Gangjeong village,” the statement read.
The Navy says the port will be home to some 20 vessels, including submarines and two 150,000-ton cruise ships.
Father Lee Kang-suh, director of the Catholic Urban Poor Pastoral Committee of Seoul archdiocese, and his followers have been staging a sit-in rally without permission in front of the main gate of the site.
“One little action is worth more than 1,000 words,” he said.
“We have the freedom of conscience and the right to seek justice when law violates the basic human rights guaranteed under the Constitution.”
The once peaceful town with a population of 1,900 has been split in two since it “hastily” decided to propose hosting the naval base in an ad-hoc meeting in April 2007 without proper consultation with residents or knowledge about the consequences.
Hundreds of residents have been fighting to reverse the village’s earlier position by impeaching then-village leader Yoon Tae-jeong and voting on the issue.
Gangjeong villagers dismissed Yoon in August 2007, after 416 of 436 residents cast ballots supporting his removal.
Ten days later, the town held a referendum where 94 percent opposed the base. Of 725 people who participated, 680 voted against the hosting the naval base.
Only 36 supported it while nine votes were void. The government and Navy, however, only recognized the first vote, angering those opposing the naval base.
The military claims that Gangjeong was designated as a naval base as the majority of the villagers supported the plan and there is a growing need to counter a possible territorial dispute with China over Ieodo, a submerged reef south of Jeju.
The Navy also claims that the Jeju naval unit would help the nation respond promptly to possible conflicts in the shipping lane in the southern sea, through which over 60 percent of the trade-dependent nation’s cargo passes.