Police raid ousts naval base protesters

Posted on : 2011-09-03 12:46 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Use of force brings back memories of April 3 Uprising on Jeju-do
 Kyungil University student)
Kyungil University student)

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju Correspondent

At dawn on Sept. 2, around 1,000 police officers were suddenly deployed at Gangjeong Village in the municipality of Seogwipo on Jeju-do, where a sit-in demonstration against the construction of a naval base is under way.

Police took away 35 activists and villagers and drove out other residents that were occupying the construction site, while the Navy put up a fence at the entrance to the site and completed preparations to allow construction to resume. On the afternoon of the same day, civil servants from Seogwipo demolished the tents and banners that had been put up around the site.

Ko Gwon-il, head of the village’s committee to oppose the base, resisted by climbing a five- to six-meter watchtower that had been installed at a nearby road junction and tying himself up in chains. Local residents and activists also fought physically to resist police. Residents protested that police from the mainland had used violence against them once again after the Uprising of April 3, 1948, while opposition parties and civic groups criticized for government for using physical force to push the construction of the base.

“To the people of Jeju-do, who remember the pain of the April 3 Uprising, the government’s decision to use force is a proclamation of battle,” said Democratic Party leader Sohn Hak-kyu at an expanded executive meeting. “The government must stop ignoring the National Assembly and come up with a peaceful solution.”

Democratic Labor Party Chairwoman Lee Chung-hee arrived at Gangjeong Village in the morning and joined the ranks of the demonstrators.

Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council Chairman Mun Dae-rim criticized authorities, saying, “The government has made a terrible move deploying force before the ink on the statement has even dried.”

The Most Rev. Peter Kang, Bishop of Jeju and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, visited Gangjeong Village on the same day and comforted villagers and activists, saying, “It’s sad and painful that things have reached such a tragic brink.”

The government’s surprise deployment of police is interpreted primarily as being aimed at preemptively blocking expansion of the base opposition movement, which could have happened through a peace and culture event that was due to be held on Sept. 3. Around 1,000 people were expected to take part in the event, which is symbolized by the “Airplane of Peace” and “Buses of Peace” by which they would travel to the village. The police’s arresting of activists, too, can be understood as an attempt to separate so-called “outside groups,” such as civic and religious groups, from local residents.

Some indicate that authorities’ use of force may be an attempt to show the strong will behind the attempts to “get a grip on public order” that they have recently stepped up, at a time when the issue is widening into a political bone of contention ahead of a visit from a subcommittee of the National Assembly’s Special Committee on Budget and Accounts.

Public security authorities have recently pointed to the struggle against the base as a leading example of “illegal group activity,” while the National Police Agency blamed the head of the local police force responsible for his “lukewarm response” to the problem and reassigned him. Although even local police acknowledge that the villagers of Gangjeong have conducted their protest using peaceful means, the Prosecution Service’s “conference on public security” and the government’s statement have degraded the movement into a “public security incident.”

Though the government designated it an “island of peace” in Jan. 2005, Jeju-do’s engulfment in conflict over the naval base construction goes back around 20 years. In 1992, the navy suggested building a naval dock there, while the following year the Joint Chiefs of Staff also pointed out the need for a naval base on the island. When the plans provoked controversy, however, the issue disappeared temporarily.

The issue resurfaced in May 2002. The need to create a battle fleet on Jeju-do was suggested at a Navy discussion. Strong opposition from local residents led the Seogwipo’s Hwasun port to be abandoned as a potential site and replaced by Wimi, which in turn was replaced by Gangjeong.

In April 2007, then Gangjeong Village head Yun Tae-jeong held a general meeting attended by only 87 (including professional haenyeo divers) of the village’s 1,000 residents and passed a unanimous decision to bid to host the base. This became the grounds cited by the government and the Navy for proceeding with the project. At another general village meeting in August of the same year, however, attended by 725 people, an absolute majority of 680 expressed opposition to the base.

The Jungdeok coastal area at Gangjeong Village is classified as an “absolute protection area,” where any development is strictly forbidden. For such a designation to be changed, there must be a substantial reason, such as change in its ecosystem. Measures to change (i.e. abolish) the area’s absolute protection status, however, were railroaded through Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council in Dec. 2009, amid resistance from opposition councillors. Civic groups proposed a motion in August 2009 to have then-governor of Jeju-do Kim Tae-hwan recalled. A referendum on the recall was rendered invalid by a low turnout of 11 percent. Current Jeju-do governor Woo Keun-min announced in November last year that he would accept the naval base.

Local residents have been protesting since April 2007 about a “lack of procedural legitimacy.” In other words, they will accept the base if the correct procedures are followed and local people agree to its construction. It appears that the deployment of official force will further deepen the people’s distrust of the government.

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

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