Battling bases in paradise
JEJU ― A prolonged visit to this island paradise invites comparisons to another idyllic island, Okinawa. The similarities are inescapable ― Jeju, the southern island province of Korea, Okinawa the southern island prefecture of Japan, each of incredible strategic as well as scenic value.
The great difference between the two is that Okinawa was torn apart by the worst battle of the Pacific War in the spring of 1945 while Jeju was almost unscathed. Jeju also escaped most of the Korean War but only after enduring its own special suffering.
No one here forgets the revolt that broke out on April 3, 1948, and raged for more than two years. Far more people were killed in the battle of Okinawa, well over 200,000, more than half of them civilians, than on Jeju, where at least 30,000 died, most of them civilians cut down in army massacres. The difference in casualty figures, however, is no guarantee that Jeju could not in some regional cataclysm become a battleground similar to Okinawa.
The clouds of war hovering on distant horizons cast vaguely disturbing shadows here even as tourists and conventioneers flock to the island. China’s claims to the waters on its periphery from the South China Sea to the Yellow Sea may seem irrelevant considering that more than half the tourists filling the hotels and tour buses are Chinese, but any expansion of the Chinese navy sends tremors of fear around the region.
Still, who could imagine anything here on the scale of the battle for Okinawa, in which Japanese forces dug in and fought almost to the last man? One answer is that geographically, Jeju resembles Okinawa in ways that are disturbing considering its self-description as ``an island of peace.” The land mass of Jeju is almost as much as Okinawa, and it’s got the same kind of long, high-cliff coastline.
Moreover, like Okinawa, Jeju has cave complexes and mountain redoubts that could provide great hiding places for soldiers and civilians. One can imagine armies fighting on the steep slopes of Mt. Halla just as the Japanese held out on ridges and caves against advancing U.S. marines and army soldiers in 1945. Jeju farmers took to those same redoubts around Halla to battle South Korean government forces in 1948.
Comparisons such as these arouse concern about ongoing construction of a rather small South Korean navy base on the southern coast of this island. In an ideal world, no one would ever need bases anywhere, but Jeju does seem a logical place for a base considering the time, expense and hassle of navy ships having to go nonstop from the east to the west coast of the Korean peninsula.
If a base on Jeju makes military sense, though, there’s no denying the project encroaches on a coastline of wildly beautiful rocks and crags, pristine beaches and traditional small harbors. Nor is there any doubt that some of the marine life has been lost during construction of the base, including fish that spawned in a stream that empties nearby.
It would be easy to shrug off the blight of the base as a relatively small price to pay, but the worry then is what happens when security needs cry out for more and more ― perhaps a military airfield down the southern coast where the Japanese once had an airfield, maybe some barracks for soldiers? No one expects air, ground and navy forces to take over vast tracts of land right away, but in a time of tension, certainly in a war, there’s no telling what might happen.
Among the worst fears of the small group of protesters, led by priests and pastors, that gathers daily outside the gates of the base, battling police and blocking trucks, is the U.S. will want to use it for marines now on Okinawa. Word that the U.S. plans to shift 9,000 marines to bases in Australia, Guam and Hawaii fuels this fear.
On top of that, the marine air station in the crowded district of Futenma will eventually have to close due to rising protests from just about everyone, and the U.S. and Japan face tremendous opposition to building a new air station in a sparsely populated area on the north central coast. The rumor among those battling construction of the navy base here is that really it’s for U.S. ships and a marine air station to replace the controversial one in Okinawa.
Actually, there’s no evidence to support such rumors. The U.S. if anything is trying to decrease its forces in Korea, already down to 28,500 people. U.S. marines have not been based in Korea in large numbers since the Korean War. Still, what happened on Okinawa has to be an object lesson for Jeju.
The people on Okinawa, after the Japanese totally conquered the island in 1879, driving out the royal family that had ruled the Ryukyu kingdom for centuries, never doubted the Japanese would know how to defend Okinawa. After the Japanese defeat, there was not much anyone could do about construction of huge new American bases, a legacy of the hard-fought American victory.
If Okinawa proves anything, it is that bases are magnets for attack. One base needs another and another. For those fighting construction of any new base, the lesson is, `Don’t let it happen here.’ That argument probably won’t stop completion of the navy base on the island but may keep Jeju from becoming another Okinawa.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, author of books and articles on military issues since the Vietnam War, has been visiting Okinawa and Jeju in recent weeks. Contact him at: email@example.com.