South Jeju citizens resist navy base construction

Posted on : 2007-05-01 13:27 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST

Lee Bok-yeol, a 62-year-old female diver who has dived for shell fish for the past 46 years in Wimi village of the island of Jeju, has not been in the water for a month. The reason is that her livelihood could be destroyed if a naval base is built nearby if the government follows through with current plans. Lee, who lives with her blind husband, calls the ocean eunhyejeon, or "paddy of grace," because the sea supported her while she raised her four children. However, Lee's face is now filled with sorrow because she is about to be forced to leave. Things are little different for other village residents.

The navy says it is going to build a base in the island's Hwasun port or Wimi village. The 120,000-pyeong (one pyeong is the equivalent of 3.3 square meters) base will house some 20 warships, including three 7,000-ton Aegis-class destroyers. The island province's governor, Kim Tae-hwan, continues to support base construction.

Opponents to base construction say the national government is contradicting itself for designating the province an "Island of World Peace" then wanting to build a military base. Go Yu-gi, head of a group representing Jeju people against the military base, said, "It is a certainty that a naval base in Jeju would heighten military tensions with China and Japan."

Lee Cheol-gi, a professor of international relations at Dongguk University, said the base could get dragged into conflicts that do not directly concern Korea. "It could turn into a U.S. military base or a bridgehead for U.S. Missile Defense (MD) scheme, depending on the U.S. military's policy of strategic flexibility," said Lee.

However, the Ministry of Defense said the island of Jeju is an optimal site for naval protection of oil shipping routes between Korea and the Middle East. On April 13, Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo said, "A naval base in Jeju won't be used as a U.S. military base and has no relationship with Missile Defense."

The government's plans to build a naval base in Jeju were unveiled about 10 years ago. However, it is only now that the navy is nearing completion its 7,000 ton Aegis-class destroyers, in 2009, that construction plans are gaining momentum.

The defense ministry has been accused of deliberately granting vacations to some 100 officers and sailors from Jeju in an apparent move to persuade people there in favor of base construction. Responding such criticism, lieutenant commander Kim Tae-ho who is part of the government body responsible for implementing the government's plans, said, "They took a vacations because they wanted to."

When the provincial government announced it would make its final decision based on a public opinion survey, 48 year-old dry cleaning shop operator Kang Yeong-hui called the idea "violent thinking." Nevertheless, the government says it is going to seek the Jeju public's opinion as it moves ahead.

The provincial legislature is putting a brakes on what it says was a one-sided decision by governor Kim Tae-hwan to host the naval base. On April 18, it said in a press conference that, "The Jeju governor's office shouldn't one-sidedly make a decision and instead should consult with the legislature."

Public opinion remains divided. Lee Seung-hak, an official at a group representing people who support base construction said, "I support the host of a naval base because it will present an opportunity for national security and regional economy." "As a former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook said, we can be both the 'island of peace' and have a military base," he said.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]