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[2015.12.02] With naval base, can Jeju remain an "Island of World Peace"?

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Posted on : Dec.2,2015 18:32 KSTModified on : Dec.2,2015 18:32 KST

Activists on kayaks demonstrate against the construction of a naval base at Gangjeong Harbour on Jeju Island, Dec. 1. (by Heo Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent)

Residents speaking out against military installations that they say endanger their island’s special identity

Residents of Jeju Island, which the South Korean government has designated “an island of peace,” are becoming more vocal about their concerns that the island is being transformed into a military outpost.

On Dec. 1, a Catholic mass in support of life and peace and in opposition to the construction of Jeju Naval Base was held in front of the main entrance to the base in Gangjeong Village in the city of Seogwipo on the island.

As soon as the mass was over, a line of cement mixers and other vehicles rolled into the construction site.

While Gangjeong Village residents and peace activists have been resisting the construction of the base for eight years, two new military bases celebrated their establishment on the island that day. 

Opening ceremonies at two bases on the same day 

On Tuesday, an opening ceremony was held on the base for the Jeju Naval Base Squadron, commanded by Captain Hyeon Chang-hun, and the base began its normal operations.

The squadron is charged with keeping watch of the base and providing logistical support to the vessels docked there.

The newly established Jeju Squadron accommodates the 301st Defensive Squadron naval forces, under the Jeju Defense Command, which had been cobbled together from the ROK Navy and the ROK Marine Corps.

After the establishment of the Jeju Base Squadron, the ROK Navy’s 7th Task Flotilla and the Submarine Squadron attached to the Submarine Command will also be moved to Jeju.

Later that same day, a ceremony was also held for the establishment of the 9th Brigade of the ROK Marine Corps. This ceremony was held at the Jeju Defense Command in the Yeon Neighborhood of Jeju City.

The 9th Brigade will replace the ROK Navy’s Jeju Defense Command, which is being broken up as part of the South Korean government’s basic plan for reforming national defense. The brigade will be charged with defending Jeju Island and surrounding islets, which will involve operations for preventing local provocations and for handling overall defense. 

Opposition from Jeju residents 

On Tuesday, the Gangjeong village committee and activist groups representing Jeju Island and the entire country who are dedicated to stopping the construction of the base and making Jeju a true “island of peace” held a press conference in front of the naval base.

“The government has justified its construction of the naval base here by citing worst-case scenarios and uncertain threats. But the naval base will serve to turn these uncertain threats into certain threats,” they said, expressing their opposition to the establishment of the Jeju Squadron.

Following the press conference, residents and activists formed a human chain and held a protest in the water aboard 10 kayaks.

“The struggle is going to start again now,” said Kim Seong-hwan, a priest.

Cho Gyeong-cheol, head of the village committee, expressed his resolve. “Our lives are filled with pain, but we will continue our fight,” Cho said.

“Since the construction of the breakwater last year, the flow of the tides into the harbor has been interrupted. There’s a layer of scum on the rocks, and you don’t see any sea life. With the tides blocked, the ecology seems to be changing from a sea into a lake,” said Kim Guk-nam, an activist who spoke with the Hankyoreh at Gangjeong Harbor on Tuesday.

“The Jeju naval base is significant for two reasons. First, it supplements the US base on Okinawa, Japan; second, it draws South Korea into the military alliance in the Pacific Ocean fronted by the US and Japan. In a crisis situation, the Jeju naval base would provide a more aggressive position for US efforts to check China than the base on Okinawa,” said Lee Sam-sung, a professor of political science and public administration at Hallym University.

Lee made the comments in a presentation during a policy debate about the Jeju naval base and peace in Northeast Asia that took place at Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council Hall on Nov. 30.

“Since the harbor at Gangjeong Village has already been built, the ideal choice for South Korea would be to redefine the role of the harbor as a coast guard base and a port for tourism,” Lee said.

“The greatest threat implied by the Jeju naval base is that it could pour fuel on the fire of the competition for hegemony between the US and China,” said Cheong Wook-sik, president of the Peace Network.

On Jan. 27, 2005, late president Roh Moo-hyun declared Jeju to be “an island of world peace.”

“The island has a history of cultivating peace, and residents boast that there are no thieves, gates, or beggars on the island. It is also a shining example of overcoming the painful history of the Jeju Uprising through truth and reconciliation, which represent the universal standard for resolving past conflict,” Roh said at the time.

But the island’s geopolitical significance has been tarnished by the sharp conflict over the construction of the naval base, some say.

By Heo Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent

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