Saturday, March 20, 2010

Jeju Island, Korea soft coral habitat under threat of planned naval base construction

This 2010 video shows the soft coral habitat in the Gangjeong sea, which will be destroyed, if the proposed Jeju naval base proceeds.Jeju Island is a beautiful volcanic island south of Korea, with Mt. Halla--the highest mountain in all of South Korea--at its center. 12% 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 the soft coral habitat in the video. 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.

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.

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."
Sung-Hee Choi at has been following the nonviolent protests of the villagers which include elderly people and tangerine farmers.

The South Korean 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 soft coral habitat and living cultural treasures (the tangerine farmers & elders), and is not going to attract tourists.

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