As the Navy is about to resume the work to build a major naval base on the southern coast of Jeju Island near Seogwipo Port, tension rises between the authorities and residents. In the four years since the project took shape, the resentment of residents and the patience of government authorities have both reached their limits, and a win-win settlement is not in sight.
Various factors have compounded the situation. First, the Navy showed a lack of confidence and consistency in pushing for the project since it was first conceived in the mid-1990s, shifting its location from one place to another. By the time the Gangjeong area was finally chosen in 2007, residents there were not convinced of the national security and economic logic offered by military and civilian authorities. Of all the coastal locations, they asked, why does it have to be our village?
Second, the provincial authorities then hastily made a formal bid for the base construction in the name of 87 “residents’ representatives” in April 2007 without establishing a community-wide consensus. Resentful residents conducted a villagers’ vote in August that year and produced an overwhelming “No.” The authorities snubbed the result.
Third, outside activists provided residents with economic, environmental and other reasons for objection. Members of dissident groups traveled to Gangjeong to educate villagers on ways to resist government measures through legal and physical means. Quite a few of them now live in the village to join in “vigilance” against police raids to remove human obstacles to the project.
The Navy erected three-meter-high walls along the 1.6 kilometer perimeter of the project site to preclude entrance of protesters when work resumes inside. Some men and women of the village are moving about with steel chains binding their bodies, symbolizing the legal restrictions imposed on them.
In response to their physical obstruction of the construction work, provincial authorities filed a number of complaints and requested injunctions. As a result, about 50 villagers have been charged with obstruction of official business and three of them are in jail. Fourteen villagers have been sued for 290 million won in damages.
There are villagers who are in favor of the base project, but they remain a minority. Some private landowners of the project site have sold their property to the Navy and most objectors have also accepted compensation for the requisitioning of their land, according to the Navy.
Legally, the Navy is ready to restart the work at any time but the authorities know physical clashes will be inevitable. Media surveys conducted last year across the island province found the majority of the population was in support of the naval base. If the situation turns violent at Gangjeong Village, however, the attitude of the general population could change.
In the meantime, some opinion leaders of Korea’s largest island express fresh skepticism about the desirability of having a major naval base on its coast considering the current campaign to have their place listed as one of the “New Seven Wonders” of the world. Beyond that, serious questions are being raised among strategic thinkers as to the necessity of a large naval station facing the Pacific Ocean in connection with the Korean Navy’s newly-adopted vision of an ocean-going maritime force.
Following the worst North Korean military provocations in the coastal waters of the West Sea last year, a consensus has been established in the civilian and military communities on the need to dramatically bolster the coastal defense. This could cause dwindling emphasis on an ocean-going ROK Navy, and a naval base on Jeju Island for that matter, in spite of the calls for our protection of the sea lines of communication as one of the world’s major trading powers.
A moment of truth is approaching and something should be done to prevent unnecessary expenditures of national energy. We would recommend an intensive review by a joint commission comprising residents’ representatives, environmental experts and civilian and military authorities. It may sound a little too late but is better than just waiting for a certain catastrophe.