This Wednesday the Korea YAV house returned from Jeju Island, the southern island vacation destination for Koreans to go to, and the island that has been labelled the “Island of World Peace” in response to past decimation of the island’s people. It is an island of great beauty and great heartbreak – both historically and in present-day. The outing that really set the tone for the trip was a visit to GangJeong Village, which is a small village of 2,000 people on the southern shore of Jeju. This tiny village houses a newly opened Korean naval base.
This naval base has been touted as a way for the village to gain new jobs and new tourism. They have said that the port will be a civilian and military usage harbor. Cruises will come into the area and Korea will be protected from foreign forces like North Korea. But what we saw of this base was not celebration of its opening but continued protest of its existence and the destruction is has wreaked on it’s own people.
We personally witnessed people from the community, Priests and international activists come together to protest this base. Catholic priests that were blocking the entrance to construction to the site were literally picked up in their chairs and moved. The protest count has reached over 3000 days and counting.
So why has there been such strong backlash for something that is supposedly so good for the community? Other sites on Jeju were passed up because of political pressure despite being better harbor positions. Because of the past failures to get approval using democratic means, the vote for a naval base in GangJeong was called a discussion on the base, and special invitations were sent to people in favor of the base. A vote was held where they counted votes by applause instead of ballots. When the villagers found out and held their own vote in response (largely against the naval base) the government only recognized the vote by applause. Aside from an underhanded beginning, the destruction rendered on land and sea has been immense.
40% of Jeju is designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve because of it’s unique and sensitive environment. Just off the coast of GangJeong Village is a tiny island called Beom Seom, or Tiger Island, which is surrounded by soft coral which only grows in clean, nutrient rich water. It’s one of the largest areas of soft coral in the world, and though it is such a tiny percentage of the ocean, a large portion of ocean life especially around Jeju relies on it to survive. This is here partially because the largest fresh water stream on Jeju flows into the ocean in GangJeong village.
Jeju is also home to the very unique Haenyeo culture, or women divers. We had the privilege of visiting a museum dedicated to those women who still dive for a living today. Most of the people’s livelihoods on Jeju is tied to the ocean and the seafood fished from that water. Despite it being a UNESCO site the naval base currently is so close to these that the naval ships courses must pass through this protected area. On top of pollution rising because of construction and the presence of large ships and submarines, ocean life will likely not thrive in these conditions.
Good harbor locations are places where the water is calm and the wind is soft so that it is easy to dock ships. The area along the coast of GangJeong village is the opposite of that, and because of that the naval base has had to build in extra breakers to make the space viable at all. They have already lost very large caisson to the storms in the area during construction.
Tied to the land as well, the largest fresh water source in Jeju meant that it was also one of the best places to farm on the volcanic island which is covered in difficult to work with volcanic rock. It was the only place in Jeju that grew rice, which requires freshwater in order to grow. Jeju is also famous for its citrus fruits that are only grown on the island. Many of those farms were destroyed to make room for the base.
Not only that, but the heart of the community was a large rock called Gureombi Rock. This was a large area of land that consisted of one rock. It had it’s own unique environment and was a place where the community gathered. A particular kind of tree only grew on this rock. 30% of the rock was blasted away to make room for the naval base which sits on top of it. Because of public outcry they did not destroy the entire rock and instead covered it with cement.
The naval base just opened its doors last Friday and soon will be home to 4,000 soldiers and their families, totaling around 7,000 people total that will enter this village of about 2,000 people. This naval base will literally swallow this community whole.
So why is there a naval base here?
There is strategic value in having a base in Jeju. It has been argued that it is to protect against North Korea, but its location brings easy access to most of East Asia – China and Japan in particular.
There are plans in place to build THAAD on the base as well which is short for “Terminal High Altitude Arial Defense.” That is a US Military missile defense system. The US Military is closely tied with the Korean military and though this is a Korean base, there would be nothing stopping the US from using the base as well. A move which is making much of the region very nervous including China, North Korea and Russia.
There is still great irony in this unfolding on the Island of World Peace. And while there may be many things about international politics and war that I don’t understand, I really can’t understand why they didn’t just move the base over to another location down the coast that wasn’t quite as sensitive or valuable, and that would have been a better choice as a harbor.
The community is still struggling with this new reality that the base has been built and is now open. The people here have witnessed the heart of their village blasted and covered in cement and their livelihoods and culture destroyed. They have been given no choice from powers much larger than them. It is difficult to watch this injustice unfold and do nothing.
To keep up to date on this issue and see how you can be a part of it visit http://savejejunow.org/
Jeju Weekly http://www.jejuweekly.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=1437
NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/world/asia/hardy-divers-in-korea-strait-sea-women-are-dwindling.html?_r=0
Counter Punch http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/23/why-oliver-stone-came-to-jeju-korea/
The Hankyoreh http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/522591.html
Save Jeju Now http://savejejunow.org/