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Sharp division over naval baseBoth sides claim peaceful motives
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승인 2010.05.26  17:06:33
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▲ Above, Jeju is divided over the proposed naval base with strong feelings on both sides. Photo by Kim Min Soo Left, Messages against the construction of the naval base at Gangjeong village. Photo by Jon Walker

In a move that may make the “Hawaii of Korea” look more like the real Hawaii, the Korean Navy has actively sought a location for a base on the southern coast of Jeju since the turn of the century, with current hopes set on the coast of Gangjeong village. Although a central government project, residents of the island have wrestled with the issue for the past decade, and with construction now on the horizon, tensions are high and opinions sharply divided.

“Jeju has no defense and a history of being attacked. This base is for our safety,” said Lee Sang Un, a representative from the Jeju Naval Base Construction Promotion Committee. The group was founded in 2005 to represent the minority of islanders who supported the Navy at that time.

With the base proposed for his town, Gangjeong village leader, Kang Dong Kyun, sees things differently. “If ever there is conflict, this base will make us a target. It will be here until the end of the world and never go away. This issue is not for us, but for our descendants,” he said. Kang has held a 14-day hunger strike and trekked around Jeju on foot as part of his efforts to protest the base.

After a 1991 visit by Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss diplomatic relations between the two nations, Korean officials dubbed Jeju “The Island of World Peace.” Although Jeju was granted autonomy in 2006, the central government still maintains control over diplomacy and military decisions.

Kang sees Jeju’s “peace” label as its greatest asset. “We cannot compete with Russia, the U.S., China, in terms of military strength. If we build a base, they will build one, and then another one. It will never end. Our greatest asset is to remain a location where talks of cohabitation may exist,” he said.

Lee disagrees. “Peace cannot be maintained without security. History proves that,” he said.

To complicate matters, the coastal setting is a place of both recreation and spiritual significance, where every New Year, Gangjeong residents gather to pray for fallen ancestors. Actual land use will be somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 pyeong (23 to 33 hectares). Lee said no houses lie in this area, so residents will not be required to relocate. However, the land is full of farms and greenhouses, which Kang said provide “some of the best crops in all of Korea.”

Lee does not believe the land is of major concern to the residents, since those who have farms will be compensated. In addition, he believes the base will lead to an increase in the land value of the surrounding area. He feels the influx of a predicted 3,500 people associated with the base will serve as an economic stimulus for Gangjeong. “Too many people have an obsession with the word ‘military.’ Yes this is a base, but it is also a port that can house large cruise style ships,” he said.

With Gangjeong generations dating back 430 years, Kang doesn’t support giving up land cultivated by his ancestors. “Our ancestors did not inherit this land, but borrowed it. It is our responsibility to protect this area and show our descend-ants how to use it. It is not ours to sell,” he said.

Kang doubted future economic benefits for the area and said the local populations of other naval islands, such as Guam and Okinawa, suffered “degenerating economies.”

Lee believes compensation will be substantial. “Those who are opposed most likely don’t have property ownership on the land that is to be used,” he said.

The area mentioned doesn’t take into account the use of the water, which in addition to being used by fisherman and haenyeo diving women, contains soft coral. According to Kang, this coral is unique and was heavily protected by the government until now. The effects construction will have on the water and coral, as well as future pollution from large ships is difficult to predict. However, some environmental impact is certain.

“There will be pollution, but within a couple years the environment will restore itself,” Lee said.

A further concern of Kang’s is the impact on Gangjeong’s major stream which, according to the Jeju water division provides up to 60 percent of Seogwipo’s drinking water.

While the facts may be out there somewhere, the story of how Gangjeong went from approving to actively opposing the base is filled with holes, and has become one man’s word against another.

According to Lee, Gangjeong was approached for a golf course but rejected the proposal. When the idea of the naval base was raised, former village leader, Yoon Tae Jung, thought it would raise the value of Ganjeong’s land.

“The ministry of national defense did an investigation and decided Gangjeong was a suitable location,” Yoon said.

“The influx of population will bring a lot of money to Jeju and Gangjeong village, so I didn’t say anything to oppose it.” Yoon now heads the pro naval base group in Gangjeong.

Kang, the current village leader, said the process in which Yoon approved the base was “undemocratic” and he and others have tried to convince the government of that. According to Kang, when a resort was built on the town’s western edge, eight meetings took place before the proposal was accepted. Only one meeting was held for the naval base, which consisted of both the proposal and a vote. Kang said the subject and gravity of the meeting was not properly announced, and only a small portion of the village attended.

“It’s simply the claim of the opposite side,” Yoon said in response. “We had many discussions about the base.”

Kang said that in August of 2007, he replaced Yoon as village leader. When first in power, Kang held another vote which he said was attended by approximately 750 out of the 2,000 villagers. Kang said 94 percent of the voters opposed construction of the base.

“94 percent is a lie,” Yoon said. “If 94 percent oppose it then I also oppose it!”

Whatever the truth may be, something happened in Gangjeong to spark the initial idea to build there, and that spark has been enough for the Navy to set up shop and prepare for construction.

Lee, whose group supports the base, hopes for more dialogue and faults both parties with a communication break-down. “Opposition is not the only solution,” he said. “It’s time for the protestors to think about what the government can do for them and how they can benefit. Also, the government needs to care more about those who oppose them, and make a better effort to communicate.”

Kang would welcome more open communication, but has no intention of lessening his opposition. “Even though the government’s power is very large and we are like a small egg, we are an egg that will never break,” he said.

With the protestors vowing to “death-defiantly oppose the construction” and ground-breaking set to occur sometime following the June elections, it appears the two sides are on a collision course. With the aim of the base to promote peace through security, the two sides need to find some common ground so that the Navy’s first battle isn’t with the people it intends to protect.

Despite the base being a central government project, hopefully the people of Jeju will have a say in how best to achieve the peaceful future they desire.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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