By Kim Heung-sook
Jeju Island is one of the best places for mainland Koreans to get away from their stifling routine. Climbing Mt. Halla, watching the sunrise on Seongsan Peak or walking along the meandering “olle” alleys in every neighborhood, you get your lost peace back. Ironically, however, peace seems remote for the islanders struggling to stop the construction of a naval base in the coastal village of Gangjeong.
``We are exhausted. Some people suggest compromise but they are small in number. Between 75 percent and 80 percent (of residents) still oppose it,” Kang Dong-gyun, representative of Gangjeong Villagers Association, said of the four-year struggle to block the naval base.
For any person of common sense, building a naval base on Jeju sounds absurd. The island, designated by the central government as ``Peace Island” in 2005, is home not only to its 530,000 residents but also to nine UNESCO-designated Global Geo Parks, three World Natural Heritage sites and a Biosphere Reserve.
``They say that they would build a beautiful port around the naval base, but how can a military base be beautiful when it is constructed by destroying the beautiful seashore?” Kang retorted in a recent interview with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an influential progressive NGO in Korea. The interview article was published in the July issue of PSPD’s ``Participatory Society.”
At first, Kang and other residents of Gangjeong couldn’t understand why the government was so keen on building the base, and after a time-consuming study and investigation, they have concluded that the project was for the United States. Their conclusion was upheld by many specialists including Christine Ahn, the executive director of the Korea Policy Institute. She also is a member of the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island.
She said in a New York Times article on Aug. 5, ``The naval base on Jeju Island will equip South Koreans and their American allies with the capability to strike long-range ballistic missile batteries in southeast China that target Japan or Taiwan. Washington sees this base as a central pillar to its defense system in the Asia-Pacific region. China, no doubt, sees it as a new threat.”
In the article headlined ``Unwanted Missiles for a Korean Island,” Ahn revealed that she had called the Korean Embassy in Washington to lodge a complaint about the Jeju base and was told: ``Don’t call us; call the U.S. State or Defense Departments; they are the ones who are pressuring us to build this base.”
She pointed out that a 2009 Rand Corporation report confirmed that “given China’s growing economic threat to the United States, the Jeju naval base is crucial for America to project power in the East China Sea and southward.” Rand, a non-profit think-tank set up in 1946 by the U.S. Army Air Forces, is believed to shape the direction in which Washington’s policies are headed.
Poet Kim Kyung-hoon, chairman of the External Cooperation Committee of the Jeju Writers Association, said Gangjeong village was in a situation similar to the April 3 tragedy of 1948 when at least 14,000 people were killed. The tragedy, often dubbed “the 4.3 Incident,” concerns a series of events that began on March 1, 1947, and continued through September 1954 largely in police and military crackdowns on Jeju islanders protesting elections to set up a government only in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. The protesters were labeled communist sympathizers.
In his article in the Hankook Ilbo, Kim said mainland combat police were now stationed in Gangjeong just as in the 1940s. National Police Chief Cho Hyun-o paid a visit July 21 to the police station of Seogwipo City where Gangjeong village is located, and called for strict law enforcement for protesters in the same tone and manner a predecessor used to threaten Jeju people in March 1947.
On July 6, the government and the Navy filed for a court injunction barring any action opposing base construction and the protesters’ entry to the base site, and such a measure also reminded Jeju residents of a notice the military issued on Oct. 17, 1948, restricting people from many parts of the island, Kim said.
Gloria Steinem, the American author and democracy activist, publicly opined on Aug. 6 that President Lee Myung-bak, apparently eager to have Jeju placed among the New7Wonders of the World, had to choose between that campaign and his endeavor to build a naval base there. Also in a NYT column titled ``The Arms Race Intrudes on Paradise,” she wondered: “How can Jeju Island be one of the seven wonders when its claim rests on nature about to be destroyed?”
It is a shame to seek outside help to solve internal problems. However, bi-national or global efforts are inevitable to cease base construction because the project involves a superpower, though seriously ill economically at the moment, and would affect the security of Asia and the Pacific, if not the whole world.
All peace lovers on the globe are requested to pressure Seoul and Washington to end their maneuvers that will begin with bulldozers and end with missiles on the island of peace.