Jeju, South Korea - Home to orange groves and skin divers, this Northeast Asian vacation spot sometimes known as the "Island of Peace" may soon have new inhabitants: a South Korean naval base, believed by opponents to be US motivated, and a fleet of warships equipped with technology that could affect the security landscape of the entire region. Local residents and international groups alike have joined to protest the base's ongoing construction in standoffs with police and Navy officers that continue to escalate. It's this sense of inevitable violence that has since moved the South Korean government to some dialogue.
Samsung and Daelim were contracted by the South Korean Navy to build the base in the small village of Gangjeong. Construction began four years ago, but has since been hindered by acts of civil disobedience. At the center of this disobedience is village chief Kang Dong Kyun.
"Until the middle of August if something happens I will make a siren ring. When you hear the siren, we should be together; otherwise it is difficult to fight," Kang said at the head of the table during an emergency meeting called on July 29 in anticipation of "D" day, the presumed arrival of hundreds of South Korean naval officers and local police to evict protesters. Police are stationed daily and often in force at the entrances to the protesters' encampment. Riot shields have become a common sight in the village.
(Photo: Alpha Newberry)
The siren has gone off three times since Kang's speech, once on August 5 to mark the arrival of 700 pro-base supporters who later had a confrontation with police in an attempt to march through the village. The second time was on August 9, when, during a standoff near the protesters' base of operations, one protester was arrested by plainclothes police who failed to identify themselves and drove off in an unmarked van. He has since been released.
The most recent siren sounding occurred during a practice run in anticipation of a confrontation with the five squadrons of Seoul and Gyeonggi Province police officers that arrived August 14 equipped with three water cannon trucks, ten crowd suppression equipment vehicles and 16 large buses. The forces, numbering 500, then moved south toward Gangjeong.
Their arrival has appeared to be nothing more than an expensive field trip. After Congress caught wind of the arrival, politicians in the Grand National Party and Democratic Labor Party threatened to review the budget for the base and pull all funding if the forces acted aggressively against the villagers. The major parties have requested the Ministry of Defense halt construction until the next elections, scheduled for April 2012.
In a July 14 interview, a South Korean Navy lieutenant who would only give his last name - Woo - said, "We can't push forward with heavy construction." Since then, police have continued to arrest key figures in the resistance, only to have them released days later on bail - that is, except for artist Choi Sung-Hee, who was arrested May 19 while holding a banner. Choi, imprisoned until August 17, was released with an eight-month prison sentence with a two-year stay of execution after serving nearly three months without bail for "interference with business."
On June 20, Chief Kang along with peace activist Song Kang Ho attempted to climb up on a Samsung dredging barge. Samsung workers and South Korean naval officers ordered them to leave the vessel. In the ensuing conflict, the barge workers aggressively kicked Song in the head and stomach and violently attempted to remove him from the barge.
Gov. Woo Keun Min has since called police Chief Song Yang Wa to request that violence not be used in attempts to enforce authority. Legal action, however, continues.
The South Korean Government and Samsung C & T Corporation have filed an injunction against the village claiming "interference with business" against 76 members of the Gangjeong community and four civil society organizations. The injunction is pending. Additionally, 14 individuals have been sued for a total of 268 million won (US$ 248,000) for interfering with construction.
Kim Jong Hwan, a local fisherman and protester, was among those named in the injunction.
"I'm not afraid because I didn't do anything wrong. I am a resident here. I have a right to be here. I live here and that is my right, as a resident and as a villager, so I am not afraid to be arrested. That is why I refuse the call from the Seogwipo stations," said Kim.
Major political parties on the mainland have started to recognize the severity of the villagers' plight. Five opposition parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party and the minor Democratic Labor Party, requested the central government abolish the project as physical confrontation seems inevitable.
Others are not so sympathetic to the cause of base opposition. Conservative newspapers have called the Gangjeong protesters leftists and North Korea supporters, hinting at communism. During the August 5 pro-base rally - which had been secret until only one day before - former Jeju Junior College Korean history Professor Seok Pyo Hang said that the date was kept secret to prevent North Korean spies from intervening.
"Pyongyang may enjoy the crisis happening in our society. The people coming from the outside, mostly the foreigners like those in Hangin, are North Korean, not Gangjeong villagers, "said Seok.
Foreign press was asked to leave the assembly. Korean press was allowed to walk freely among the demonstrators, some of whose banners called base protesters "garbage."
The ROTC coordinator for Jeju shouted that the protesters are against the growth of the economy because they are against the base and that they should re-evaluate their position.
Seok added that the pro-base supporters don't want any violence, but they do want to remove the outsiders from Gangjeong. At the end of the rally, supporters attempted to march through Gangjeong village, where an anti-base demonstration was being held simultaneously. Police holding riot shields blocked the march, led by wheelchair-bound veterans who attempted to force the police back.
(Photo: Alpha Newberry)
Some argue that the naval base is not in Korea's best interests. The ships that will call the base home are to be outfitted with the Aegis missile defense system, capable of destroying satellites and potentially intercontinental ballistic missiles. According to at least one defense analyst, this capability is more of a liability than it is an advantage. US-based Matthew Hoey said, "I find it disturbing that the Pentagon provided a briefing to the United States Congress in 1999 titled, Theater Missile Defense. Architecture Options for the Asia-Pacific Region, which stated clearly that Aegis is not an effective security solution to meet South Korea's needs. In fact, the document stated that Aegis is incapable of protecting Seoul from a North Korean attack. Rather the Aegis system, which is riddled with flaws and can easily be overcome with countermeasures, is more suited for addressing long-range ballistic missile threats. In nearly all models, these threats do not affect the ROK [Republic of Korea]."
Hoey went on to suggest that having the Aegis system in Jeju serves US security needs more than South Korean ones: "For instance, the presence of sea-based Aegis at Jeju is ideal for protecting vital United States national interests like Guam and Japan from Chinese ballistic missile attack. No matter your position on the Jeju naval base, for or against, this should be an outrage. A tremendous amount of money was wasted on the most advanced BMD system in the world and it does not effectively meet South Korea's primary security challenge. That being an attack from the North."
Hoey is also the developer of the web site savejejuisland.org and believes - along with more than 130 international groups that have joined in solidarity against the base - that construction is linked to the US.
US forces Korea denied comment on the base and asked that further inquiries be submitted to ROK Ministry of National Defense, which has stated that the base is not a US military base and denied any further comment.
The US and South Korea have a mutual defense treaty that allows each to station troops or armaments at the other's bases upon agreement.
Also at stake is the environmental impact of base construction. Jeju is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ) World Heritage Site contender in the New 7 Wonders campaign and home to the upcoming World Conservation Congress 2012.
The naval base construction site was once protected by the Jeju government as an "absolute protection area" because of the Gureombi, a collection of broad lava-formed rocks, a geographically important structure and home to numerous endangered species. The area is also the only natural dolphin habitat in the region.
Governor Woo removed the "absolute preservation area" status in order to allow construction of the naval base. The Jeju Council disagreed with this move, saying it was illegal and Gangjeong residents filed suit with the Jeju District Court. The court rejected the suit, claiming "there is no standing with citizens." The case has since been appealed to the Supreme Court and will be heard within the year. If the Supreme Court sides with preservation, base construction will be forced to stop.
Both UNESCO and the New 7 Wonders Foundation have been asked for comment about naval base construction. UNESCO World Heritage Program Specialist Jung Young-hun in an email said that the "absolute preservation area" is out of their control.
"The Jeju prefecture clarified that the Gangjeong village, reserved for the Navy Port in Jeju, is far away from the WH boundary and its buffer zone, therefore the issue is not the matter of the World Heritage site."
The New 7 Wonders Foundation was interviewed by OhmyNews reporter Koo Young-sik as regards construction:
"... what would you say to the Jeju government which wants Jeju to become a New 7 Wonder of Nature, but at the same time rushes to destroy the biosphere reserve rather than protect and preserve it?" - [OhmyNews]
"... Governments today are fully aware of the need for sustainable development, but how this is best achieved is a matter for democratically elected officials and informed citizens; it is not something that New7Wonders can decide."- [New 7 Wonders Foundation]
The New 7 Wonders Foundation was also questioned about their nonprofit status. Their earnings are not available to the public and, recently, Hyundai Motor Company, the former employer of South Korea President Lee Myung Bak gained "platinum donor" status with the New 7 Wonders campaign after an unknown amount was contributed this June.
Base construction could also be stopped if Governor Woo would make the construction site an "absolute preservation area" again. However, such an act would risk the loss of financial support from the central government. Governor Woo has mentioned repeatedly the base would be economically profitable for the small island.
At the end of July, the governor requested an emergency special session be held by the Jeju Council to discuss Gangjeong and the development money promised by the central government for accepting the base in Jeju - the purpose being to push the central government into publicly announcing how much will be provided for construction and development of the surrounding community.
The proposed cost of the base and the up to 20 Aegis destroyers that are to call it home is $970 million. According to the Korea Times, a single Aegis ship costs more than the naval base. "9.1 billion won to build a KDX-III Aegis destroyer; and 5 billion to construct a naval base on Jeju Island."
Since the acceptance of the base, the Jeju provincial government has heard little from the central government in regard to development dollars. A ten-year economic plan for Gangjeong is currently being devised by the Jeju Development Institute - the project began at the end of June this year, and the ten billion dollar budget proposal will be submitted at the end of October. The plan involves developing the industry and infrastructure of Gangjeong, local agriculture and sustainable maritime industry.
Seogwipo City Hall member Kim Young Chul is a part of "The Department of Settling Conflicts of Jeju Naval Base." He said the department was created by Governor Woo at the beginning of this year; however, regrettably, he could not discuss the inner workings of the group, nor could he discuss the names of the other members.
The Jeju provincial government and Jeju Provincial Assembly have refused to comment publically on the Gangjeong naval base issue, stating it was too sensitive a matter. The Navy has also refused further comment.
Since Gangjeong was selected as home to the base four years ago, Chief Kang has said the police have tried to weary the villagers with their inconsistent behavior. Kang says besides the NGOs volunteering, the villagers protesting are farmers. Kang doesn't believe this recent arrival will be the last fight either.
Since the article was submitted the siren in Gangjeong has sounded.
South Korean Ministry of Defense police officers were thwarted by fewer than 200 people August 24 as villagers and activists surrounded more than 400 officers bearing riot shields. The villagers used a blockade of vehicles and bodies to encircle the local officers while yelling for the release of their village Chief Kang Dong Kyu.
The standoff began when construction workers utilized a bridge outside of the naval base office in Gangjeong to transport heavy machinery to begin construction. A call was made to Chief Kang to inform him the equipment was overcapacity. The transportation of the machinery coincided with the arrival of journalists with the Ministry of Defense.
Kang responded by arriving at the location to order the crane and other machinery be removed. Activists accompanied Kang to the site, one female protester chained herself to the crane, creating a flash image of the Hangin protests on the mainland.
Calls were made to the Seogwipo police for "interference with business" and chief Kang along with four other protesters were arrested. Samsung C&T and Daelim have filed the same complaint multiple times against the village protesters. So much so that a game of "catch and release" of the village leaders has become an expectation with the arrival of police.
Catholic priest Koh Byung-Su negotiated terms with the Seogwipo Police Chief Song Yang Wa. It was agreed that Chief Kang would be escorted by the priest along with ten other villagers to the police station for questioning and then be immediately released.
Villagers shouted that they didn't trust the terms and demanded Chief Yang be restricted behind his shielded officers until the return of their leader. Almost two hours later, Chief Yang snuck out of the crowd, greatly angering the villagers. Nearly 100 activists drove to the local police station to display their distrust in the department and demand the return of their leader. Villagers were witnessed climbing the walls of the station.
Jeju Provincial Council has submitted a request to the national government for a referendum on the construction of the naval base.
"We won," said Jung Woo-chul as he stood in the bed of a truck yelling over the police and villagers. The renowned film director said the police had admitted their arrest was undeserved by allowing Chief Kang to leave the site escorted only by the Catholic priest and ten chosen villagers. The prosecuting attorney, however, has refused his release in response to the protesters' civil disobedience.
August 25, Seogwipo Police Chief Yang was removed as head of the police department.