Jeju Island, fondly referred to as “Korea’s Hawaii,” has more in common with the US state than many know. Besides a lure for honeymooners, a balmy climate, and beautiful volcanic geology they’ve also both suffered American imperialism.
The case of Hawaii is well known – in 1893 the US Marines overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy; five years later it was annexed and declared a US territory. Jeju’s history is more contested but the facts are clear – as early as August 1945 the island was “a truly communal area . . . peacefully controlled by the People’s Committee [of Cheju Island],” a decentralized democratic government that reflected the people’s separatist feelings toward the Korean mainland. [See Bruce Cummings’ “Korea’s Place in the Sun – A Modern History,” New York, 1997, p.219]. Between 1948 and 1953, one-tenth of Jeju’s population was murdered and one-third displaced.
Jeju may soon replicate its Pacific cousin in another way: serving as a base for the American Navy. Plans for a base in Jeju were announced back in 2002, and construction is currently underway in the small fishing village of Gangjeong, not far outside Seogwipo City. The South Korean government insists the base will be for its own national purposes but the ties between the US and Korean militaries should make one sceptical.
Given that the base will be the home to a fleet of Aegis-equipped destroyers (high-tech ships designed to shoot down ballistic missiles) it’s hard not to see it in connection to US plans to create a missile “shield” around China much as is being done in Eastern Europe against Russia. [See “U.S. and Romania Move on Missile Plan,” The New York Times, May 3, 2011.]
Since 2002 the naval base has been suspended and had its location changed several times due to strong opposition on the island. The South Korean government, in an effort to placate the population, has also decided to include in the project a nearby “eco-friendly” park and the economic incentive of a commercial dock for luxury cruise liners. Such movement on the part of the authorities may suggest there is hope for the current protesters and for the island itself in not becoming another Hawaii.
Brendan Brisco has a Master's degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and currently teaches English Literature at Gangwon-do Foreign Language High School.
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