Standoff over South Korean naval base

Locals say construction of a Navy base on Jeju Island will spoil one of South Korean's environmental gems. South Korean officials say it's a necessary defense against as a rising North Korean threat.

Kim Ho-Cheon/Yonhap/Reuters
Protesters struggle with riot police (top) to keep their positions during a rally against the construction of a new naval base in Seogwipo on Jeju Island, South Korea, September 2.

Beyond the tall walls protecting the site of a South Korean naval base under construction on this verdant island province, demonstrators protest day and night against what they see as “desecration” of the island’s rich heritage.

“We are going to do everything we can to stop it,” says Cho Yak-gol, standing in what has become the headquarters tent for protests that ebb and flow depending on the number who show up to protest – anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred – and their willingness to confront the police. “The villagers have been fighting for four and a half years.”

Several million tourists a year flock to Jeju, warm enough year-round for Korea’s only palm and tangerine trees but dominated by the country’s highest peak, Mount Halla, which rises 6,400 feet above the surrounding seas and is snow-covered half the year. Tour guides, however, don’t bring them to Gangjeong village, population 1,500, where the base is being built on the island’s rocky southern coast.

“The villagers have opposed the base,” says Mr. Cho, an activist from near the Korean capital of Seoul. “Jeju is supposed to be an island of peace.”

Protest flags fly from villagers’ homes, but they appear vastly outmatched by the determined drive of the government to complete the construction in two or three years as defense against what officials see as a rising North Korean threat.

The defense ministry believes the base is needed in the wake of two bloody episodes last year 200 miles north of here in the Yellow Sea in which a South Korean navy vessel was sunk and an island base shelled with a total loss of 50 lives. South and North Korean nuclear envoys talked Wednesday in Beijing about renewing six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but tension remains high while US and South Korean officials agree tough sanctions should stay.

The ministry admits “significant progress has yet to be made due to incessant objections” and blames trouble-makers from elsewhere. “Rallies have been done mostly by groups originating outside Gangjeong,” says the ministry.

The ministry accuses activists of spreading falsehoods, including the claim that US warships will use the base. Both South Korean and American officials say there’s no such plan. Authorities say the base will be multi-purpose by serving as a port for huge international cruise ships, bringing in still more revenue for an island whose principle business is tourism.

While activists are an embarrassment to the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, officials note the original plan for the base was authorized under Mr. Lee’s left-leaning predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.

The protest is likely to increase, moreover, while the island prepares to host the World Conservation Congress one year from now. Kim Chong-chun, secretary-general of the Korean organizing committee, exudes national pride as he talks about the congress, a quadrennial event staged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a UN observer organization.

“Jeju is a beautiful island,” says Mr. Kim. “That’s why Jeju was chosen. All here are working together on the most sensitive environmental issues. Nature is crucial.”

But what about the protesters’ claim that the base shows disregard for Jeju’s natural beauty? “Our forum is open to everyone,” he says. “Everyone can participate.”

Outside the base, Cho Yak-gol says, “The base is not going to be helpful for the environment” and plans yet another candlelight vigil. A woman beside him hands out leaflets proclaiming, “Justice to Jeju, Peace to Gangjeong,” over the silhouette of a destroyer. Inside, the leaflet shows a species of a rare crab.

"This is a treasure,” says the leaflet. “Because of the base, they will be totally destroyed.”

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