Lee Gyeong-seon, president of the Jeju Women’s Association, reads a statement in front of the construction site of a naval base in Gangjeong, Jeju, saying local residents and activists will continue peaceful demonstrations.
By Lee Tae-hoon
GANGJEONG, Jeju ― The debate continues to rage as to whether an envisioned naval base on Jeju Island will strengthen national security or spur an arms race in Northeast Asia, potentially making it a prime target for military retaliation.
The Navy is building a naval base with a budget of 977.6 billion won ($920.5 million) in Gangjeong, a village on the southern coast of the volcanic island.
It is capable of housing more than 20 warships, including three Aegis destroyers, and mooring two cruisers or an aircraft carrier, according to a military source.
Opponents of the naval base argue that the militarization of the resort island, which lies south of the Korean Peninsula between China and Japan, will provoke Beijing and Tokyo to beef up their military presence and stir up regional instability.
Proponents claim that the operation of the new base will be strictly defensive in nature and it will be the least a country surrounded by superpowers can do to protect its sovereignty.
What’s at stake?
The Navy claims that its military presence in Jeju will help defend Korea’s maritime rights and interests, especially in the East China Sea, one of the last unexplored high-potential resource areas bordered by China, Korea and Japan.
The three countries have yet to reach an agreement on the delimitation of their maritime borders on the untapped reserves estimated to contain as much as 100 billion barrels of oil.
“We are waging a silent battle over resources against China and Japan,” a senior naval official said asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The dispute stems from overlapping jurisdictional claims and concerned countries’ different views on the method of maritime delimitation under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Japan argues that its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is generally defined as an area within 200 nautical miles from a coastline, should extend as far as a median line that bisects the East China Sea.
Both Korea and China claim that their EEZ should stretch beyond 200 nautical miles from their shorelines on the ground their continental shelf stretches to the Okinawa Trough in the disputed area.
Dispute over Ieodo
Kim Hoon-bae, advisor to the Korea Defense Network, says the Jeju naval base will play a key role in strengthening the country’s sovereignty over Ieodo, a submerged mound on the overlapping EEZ of Korea and China in the East China Sea.
In 2003, Korea completed the construction of an ocean research station with a helipad on Ieodo, a reef submerged 4.6 meters below sea level.
“The naval base will help Korea effectively counter China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims over Ieodo,” he said.
Also known as Socotra Rock, Ieodo is located 149 kilometers southwest of Korea’s southernmost island of Marado and 247 kilometers northeast of the nearest Chinese island Tongdao.
Col. Lee Eun-guk, head of the Naval Base Business Committee, points out that the new naval base in Gangjeong will allow the country’s warships to arrive at Ieodo in seven hours.
It currently takes more than 21 hours for the Navy to dispatch warships to Ieodo from its base in Busan, compared to 13 hours from the nearest Chinese base in Sheshan Dao.
“If we completely give up Ieodo, Jeju will be exposed to security challenges that western border islands, such as Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong face,” he said, noting that the reef serves as a buffer zone between Jeju and China.
The Navy also claims that the new base will improve the surveillance and protection of the country’s southern sea lanes, through which over 60 percent of the country’s trade passes. Nearly all oil tankers coming to Korea also use those lanes.
Concerns over naval base
Cheong Wook-sik, head of the Peace Network, points out that the construction of a naval base on Jeju, which was designated in 2005 as the “Island of World Peace,” will turn “uncertain threats” to “certain threats.”
“Naval activities of China and Japan in waters off Jeju Island or the Korean Peninsula have never posed a serious security threat,” he said. “Should a maritime conflict arise, it would be more appropriate for the maritime police to handle the matter.”
Cheong contends that if Korea sends warships to settle disputes with China and Japan, it will only cause unnecessary military confrontations with the neighboring countries.
He also argues that the new 480,000-square-meter naval base is poised to turn into an outpost for a U.S. naval unit capable of intercepting China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Jeju will become the shrimp whose back gets broken in a fight between whales,” he said, noting that Seoul won’t be able to resist the U.S. Navy’s demands to make use of the base to blockade China due to its military alliance.
Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat, suspects that the $1-billion project is driven by greed, rather than national security.
“I’d say that there are plenty of naval bases on the mainland of Korea,” she said.
“Every time the military expands its presence, you have to look closely at why they are doing it. More often than not, here in Korea too, it is all about big military contractors who want to make money.”
Justification of military buildup
The Navy claims that Korea needs to reinforce its military capacity as it lags far behind its neighboring powers in terms of military might.
Korea’s defense budget stood at $24.5billion last year, which was only a fraction of the $78 billion and $45.6 billion that China and Japan spent respectively in that year, according to the 2010 Defense White Paper.
“A proverb says if you wish for peace, prepare for war,” Col. Jeong Sam-man of Korea Naval War College said. “History shows that peace cannot exist when one is defenseless.”
Jeong also discounts the possibility of the Jeju base becoming a U.S. naval base.
“Not a single penny of the budget is allocated for the sake of the U.S. military,” he said.
Col. Lee also noted that the Jeju naval base lacks facilities to allow U.S. sailors to stay for a long term.
“We’re not building any facilities to support U.S. operations,” he said.
The military outlined a plan to build a new naval base on Jeju in 1993.
The plan gained momentum as the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration pursued a greater self-reliant defense capability in line with its efforts to push forward the transfer of wartime operational control from the United States.