Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Villagers protest construction of nuclear naval base at Jeju Island--a biodiverse World Heritage Site & Korea's "Island of Peace"

"My heart is broken. We are helpless and they are forcefully driving the naval base," Jeju is the Island of the Peace. There should be absolutely no war base. We need the support by all Koreans and all international peace-loving people. We are just the innocent farmers without much knowledge. We need your help."

-- Gangjeong villager Hong Keun-Pyo
          (Coral habitat off Gangjeon Village, Jeju Island. Photo:

Jeju Island is a beautiful volcanic island south of Korea, with Mt. Halla--the highest mountain in all of South Koreaat its center.  Twelve percent of the island is covered by a Gotjawal Forest, a pristine, naturally formed forest habitat for unique and endangered plants and animals. Groundwater from Gotjawal is the main water source for the island's half millon residents.

In 2007, UNESCO named Jeju a World Heritage Site:
Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes together comprise three sites that make up 18,846 ha. It includes Geomunoreum, regarded as the finest lava tube system of caves anywhere, with its multicoloured carbonate roofs and floors, and dark-coloured lava walls; the fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, rising out of the ocean, a dramatic landscape; and Mount Halla, the highest in Korea, with its waterfalls, multi-shaped rock formations, and lake-filled crater. The site, of outstanding aesthetic beauty, also bears testimony to the history of the planet, its features and processes.
Jeju is also a UN designated biosphere preservation zone with 137 designated cultural assets all over the island.

The southern coast of Jeju is home to a coral reef. In 2001, the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration designated it a national monument protection area. It appeared that the South Korean government recognized and valued the irreplaceable and unique natural beauty and traditional indigenous culture of Jeju.

However, in 2006, the South Korean government made another designation based on a profit rather than a preservation motive. It named Jeju a "free international city" to make way for gambling casinos and a naval base in southern Jeju intended to port U.S. and South Korean Aegis destroyers outfitted with missile defense systems that the villagers say will be used to surround China's coast--potentially making their once peaceful island a target if hostilities break out.

Peace activist Bruce Gagnon wrote in October at his blog that the South Korean government approached three villages about hosting the base. The first two turned the government down. So, in the case of the third village, Gangjeong, the government decided to offer bribes to some of the residents. Most of the residents remained opposed to the base, but the bribes created enough of a division to allow government to say they will build the base in this village:
The villagers of Gangjeong do not see the Navy base as offering them much. Their local economy is thriving from the tangerine groves that are everywhere in the town and from the abundant numbers of tourists who come there to experience the seaside. In fact the Navy base would take significant portions of their village land now used for farming and would destroy the environment. The rocky shoreline would be covered with cement and the proposed base pier would extend to the edge of where the fresh water Gangjeong River flows into the sea.

Kang, Dong Kyun, the mayor of the village and a key protest leader, told me that 70% of the drinking water for the community comes from the river and would surely be negatively impacted by the Navy base. Take away our water, he said, and you destroy the town.

( In protest of Navy base plan, Mayor Kang Dong-Kyun of Gangjeong village sat overnight in the cold outside the Jeju government building. Photo:

Throughout the village you see many tall bamboo poles with yellow flags on them that say, "We desperately oppose the Naval base." But no one in the government wants to listen to them. They have tried all the usual steps of meeting with government officials, organizing protests, and they recently tried to recall their provincial governor in a special election but did not turn out a high enough percentage of voters to make the vote official.

They've now set up a camp along the rocky coastline where some are now holding a round-the-clock vigil. More tents will be erected in the coming weeks as construction is set to begin at the end of this year. When I spoke to the village people in their community center last night there were key activists from other parts of South Korea who are trying to help...

Mayor Kang told me, "This is the land of our ancestors that we must pass on to the future generations. This village must not be used as a 'strategic' base but must be preserved. The government is dividing people against each other which is the worst thing of all. The long lasting people will ultimately win."
On January 11, Bruce updated the protest, describing the tent village that Mayor Kang and others set up to protest the start of construction.

And just a week later--now--both Sung-Hee Choi at and Gagnon are reporting violent police reprisals against the peaceful protesters, which include elderly people, tangerine farmers and Catholic priests.


A Jeju resident told Choi that the police violence is a repeat of the 2006 attack by the South Korean government on its own people in Pyeongtaek. 13,000 South Korean soldiers and riot police would not allow farmers on their own land where a US military base (Camp Humphreys) was to be tripled in size. The police and military arrested and beat hundreds of people nonviolently protesting land seizures on behalf of the US.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans have already been victimized by the US and the South Korean government in this way--as the sacrifice of the Korean peninsula during the Cold War enters a new incarnation. US troops killed large groups of Korean civilians indiscriminately during the Korean War. In 1950, at least 100,000 Koreans were massacred by the South Korean government allied closely with the US.

And in 1948, the South Korean government killed 30,000 of its own citizens and destroyed villages throughout Jeju. Other victims escaped by fleeing to Japan where they established a Jeju town in Osaka.

The government must be reminded of its own earlier acknowledgement and understanding of the reality of the irreplaceable value of Jeju Island's natural and cultural beauty, including the residents of Gangjeong. A guided missile base is going to destroy the natural coral and dolphin habitat, and is not going to attract tourists.

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