By Laura Hough
Located approximately 130 km from South Korea’s southern coast, the beautiful Jeju Island (or Jeju-do) is South Korea’s largest island and smallest province. Inhabitants of the island live lives primarily focused on fishing and/or agriculture, commonly catching creatures such as different fish, squid, octopus, sea cucumber, abalone, and oysters and cultivating produce such as tangerines, pineapples, and shitake mushrooms (Weber 2011).
Besides the locals, around 9,000,000 tourists per year spend time on Jeju-do (Liang 2012). The island, known also as “Island of the Gods” and thought of as South Korea’s Hawaii, entices visitors due to its mild, hardly-changing climate and beautiful environmental features. A volcanic island, Jeju-do is home to South Korea’s tallest peak—a volcano by the name of Halla Mountain. Surrounding Halla are 360 smaller volcanoes, but other than mountains the island also boasts miles of beautiful shoreline and soft coral reefs that provide habitat for thousands of different species (Weber 2011).
It is on this island that the South Korean Government is building an immense new naval base that will harm the environment, way of life, and security of Jeju-do. Jeju was picked based on its extremely strategic location in the Korea Strait, essentially at the center point between Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Vladivostok. From the base, South Korean ships can be sent directly into the South Sea, which is a key trade route (Lee 2012).
With South Korea aiming to improve its standing as a highly developed nation, this is a great advantage. The plans for the port show that it will be able to hold 20 warships simultaneously, in addition to 150,000-ton cruise ships (Lee 2012). The destroyers docked in the base would have on board the latest Aegis missiles (pointed towards China) (Paik 2012).
Due to the size of the port, it is estimated that upwards of 6,000 servicemen will subsequently inhabit Jeju Island at any given point in time, most likely spurring the establishment of restaurants, bars, shops, and brothels for the military (‘Jeju, Island of Peace’… 2013). The South Korean government plans to finish this momentous project sometime in 2015.
Before we even discuss the overwhelming repercussions that this base would have on the island of Jeju, it is crucial to note the less-than-ideal manner in which the project was permitted to commence. Originally, dating back to 2002, the villages of Hwasoon and then Wimi were pursued as the preferred locations for the naval base, but the residents fought successfully against these plans and so prevented the development (Ahn 2011). Currently the base is being constructed in the area of the village of Gangjeong, on Jeju-do’s southern coast. Former village chief Yoon Tae Jun “announced his approval of the planned base” on April 24, 2007, and thus began the struggle of the people of Gangjeong (Ahn 2011).
To be in accordance with village governmental customs, a meeting to discuss the village’s opinion of the chief’s actions would have been held one week after the announcement. Instead, abruptly, three days later a meeting was held at which only 87 of Gangjeong’s 1,050 residents were present (Ahn 2011). For the first time in the history of Gangjeong, an extremely subjective method was used to vote on approval of the project—clapping. With this “vote,” the base was endorsed. The chief promised another village committee meeting 10 days later to reassess the villagers’ approval, but never followed through.
Furious, the village forced Yoon Tae Jun out of power and with their new village chief organized a referendum on the base on August 20, 2007 (Ahn 2011). At this more widely heralded and better put together meeting, of the 725 people who participated, 94% opposed the base (Ahn 2011). This was a much more accurate portrayal of Gangjeong’s view towards the naval base. However, this vote was rejected by South Korean officials, who continued the building of the station based on the first (less-than-ideal) vote.
To this day the base is still being built, and locals are still vehemently opposed to it. Approximately 130 acres of what was once farmland have been taken over for the project, spanning from the port to the river (Ahn 2011). Residents of Gangjeong have been against this project from the beginning, trying to succeed via the judicial system, peace marches, and other peaceful means of protest. In 2009 nearly 500 villagers brought a case to the lower courts determined to cease the construction of the base (Lee 2012).
While the unjust means of voting previously mentioned was an issue, they based their argument on the fact that the military’s plan had been approved in 2009 before the official environmental impact assessment had been submitted for review. While the lower courts sided with the villagers, that decision was later repealed by the Supreme Court, who sided with the Ministry of National Defense. Finally, the case reached the highest ranks in the Seoul High Court in December 2012, and it was unfortunately decided that the Supreme Court’s position was just. The court backed their position by stating that by the time the military entered the “basic design plan” stage, the assessment had been submitted, so therefore the plan is lawful (Lee 2012).
While this large scope method of protest ended up failing, individuals have also been completely invested in means of protest. One such notable individual is Yang Yoon Mo, a famous South Korean film critic. In April 2011, Yang was eventually “arrested for erecting and living in a tent on the coast for years to impede construction” (Ahn 2011).
To show further solidarity towards the cause, he proceeded to go on a hunger strike for 71 days, of which 57 were spent in prison (Ahn 2011). Yang was once again imprisoned earlier this year on February 1, 2013, this time directly from court, but still followed his pattern of protest by going on a hunger strike while in jail. Due to pleas made by fellow protesters, Yang ended his strike recently, on March 24, and began to eat light gruel (Prof. Yang… 2013).
Another event which really caused a stir not only on Jeju Island but also around the world was the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress of 2012, involving 8,000 participants, which was held in Jeju-do from September 6-15 (Paik 2012). But despite what one might think, and despite what the villagers of Gangjeong were expecting, when the conference started it became clear that the issue of the naval base on Jeju Island would not be discussed.
For the IUCN had accepted funds from not only the South Korean government but from Samsung, one of the major contractors of the construction project, in order to hold the conference at that location (Paik 2012). They agreed not to discuss the topic unless the government approved it, which they obviously didn’t. In addition to that, villagers were not allowed near the premises of the conference, so their voices could not be heard, despite the fact that the awful construction was going on barely 4 miles away (Paik 2012).
This strategy backfired on the Korean government, however, when word got out to the members of this silenced issue. They were so appalled that it ended up causing a revolt among members and the villagers, which brought the issue on Jeju-do into the spotlight of the world stage. A month following the conference, a peace march was led from Jeju Island to Seoul, where activists picked up supporters along the way and led all 5,000 marchers to a giant rally in the capital (Paik 2012). Dramatic events such as the IUCN debacle have made the rest of the world more aware of the plight of the Gangjeong villagers. News and updates are available to any supporters of the cause through media such as websites (SaveJejuNow.org) and Facebook pages (http://www.facebook.com/SaveJeju).
One reason why people have flocked to this conflict is because of the impact the base already has and quite possibly will have on the spectacular environment of Jeju-do. The island was named, in 2011, one of the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World by the organization New7Wonders. The list was narrowed down to the seven finalists from over 440 locations in more than 220 countries (Weber 2011). In the company of Jeju Island are the Amazon, Iguazu Falls, and Table Mountain (Weber 2011). Jeju-do boasts a unique and thriving environment, home to many rare and endangered species and remarkable natural structures.
For example, Solipnian reeds and Skeleton fork ferns thrive in the warm-tempered subtropical falls (Liang 2012). But the construction of the naval base infringes on the habitat of and further endangers species such as Sesarma intermedium (the red-footed crab), Jeju saebaengi (native freshwater shrimp), and Clithon retropietus V. Martens (Statement from the IUCN… 2012). All in all, the construction of the base is projected to “destroy 98 acres of ocean floor inhabited by soft coral reef and nine endangered species” (Ahn 2011). Along with direct destruction of habitat, toxins released due to construction and the additional industry in the area will put many more species in danger, and will upset the delicate island ecosystem that has thrived for so long.
It is not just organizations such as New7Wonders who have taken notice of this gem of an island. Jeju-do is home to three official UNESCO World Heritage sites. The first, Geomunoreum, is “regarded as the finest lava tube system of caves anywhere” on earth and “includes a spectacular array of … stalactites and other decorations” (World Heritage List 2007).
Second is Seongsan Ilchulbong, a majestic “tuff cone” surrounded by water, and third is the aforementioned outstanding Halla Mountain (World Heritage Lister 2007). These sites have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites not only for their overwhelming aesthetic beauty, but also because of the way they have geologically chronicled the history of the island and provide amazing opportunities to learn and research about the earth. In addition to claiming these sites, Jeju Island is also officially a UNESCO Biosphere Conservation Area as of 2002, a Marine Ecosystem Conservation Area (as titled by the Korean government in 2002), and an Absolute Retention Coastal Area as decided by the Jeju government in 2007 (Statement to the IUCN… 2012).
It is clear that a multitude of reputable sources believe Jeju Island to be an island worth preserving to the utmost extent. Even the South Korean government has, in the past, recognized its value as a pure and pristine ecological site. And yet now they are going against their former judgment, and the current better judgment of many others, by befouling the area and jeopardizing the entire ecosystem. Even just threatening a single species can cause unforeseeable consequences within an ecosystem as a whole, and so endangering as many as nine species along with the rare soft coral itself could be catastrophic. Their status as endangered species should be honored.
The villagers’ longing to maintain their traditional way of life should also be respected. Residents of Jeju-do, including those of Gangjeong, have long made their tranquil living farming and fishing. With the seizing of coastal land by the military, many farmers have lost the land which once grew their crops, causing them to turn elsewhere. But besides these common farmers, a certain group of female fishers on Jeju Island that will be affected has even reached legendary status, according to many. In fact, one of the names commonly used when referring to Jeju Island is Women’s Island (Steinem 2011).
The haenyo are women who devote their life to sea diving and foraging for seafood such as abalone. The extraordinary aspect of their actions is that they remain underwater simply by holding their breath, without the use of SCUBA or snorkel equipment, and many haenyo are able to hold their breath for up to two minutes (Ahn 2011). The reason they have maintained this tradition, even after the development of technology such as SCUBA, is that they are determined not to over-harvest the sea floor. By limiting their dive time, they set an appropriate limit for how many creatures they remove from the ocean at once. They greatly value the ecosystem Jeju-do has been blessed with, not only in an environmental sense but also a spiritual sense, and do what they can to preserve it.
In an interview with Christine Ahn, one haenyo by the name of Kang Ae-Shim explained, “All the things that come from the ocean, the abalone, the snails – these are not just a matter of life, they are the medicine that strengthens the life spirit” (2011). These organisms and the way they are harvested are important facets of the traditional daily life which inhabitants of Jeju Island happily pursue. But with the construction of the naval base in Gangjeong, and the destruction of nearly 100 acres of sea floor habitat, the harmony between humans and nature which the haenyo have devoted themselves to maintaining will be disrupted, both directly and indirectly. Directly, organisms currently inhabiting the planned port area will either be wiped out or will be forced to find a new area to settle. In addition, this huge area that was once harvested by haenyo will no longer be available to them, so they are forced to intensify their focus on other areas of the coast, if they are able to reach them. If the Gangjeong naval base is completed, it will only serve to disturb this balance even further than it already has. The villagers deserve to be able to continue their way of life that has been carried on for generations.
Another threat posed directly to villagers is a threat to their personal safety. With the construction of a military base on its coast, the tranquil island of Jeju will suddenly become much more of a target for foreign militaries. The ships located at the station will not only be warships, but warships equipped with the advanced Aegis Combat System, a naval weapons system initially used by the US Navy but which has now also been adopted by the Republic of Korea Navy.
By using powerful computers and radars, the system extremely successfully tracks and guides weapons to destroy enemy targets. Many say that the placement of these Aegis destroyers and the naval station in general on Jeju Island will be more of an advantage to the US military, whose ships will also be allowed to dock in the station based on the US-ROK (United States/Republic of Korea) Mutual Defense Treaty. In an article from The New York Times, arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis stated that the “Aegis destroyers to be based in Jeju would help defend South Korea against Chinese missiles and help defend Japan against missiles from both China and North Korea,” but they wouldn’t be helpful to what is arguably South Korea’s greatest security risk—defense against North Korean missiles (Ahn 2011). They would, however, serve the best interests of the US by protecting their other ally, Japan, and by establishing a weapons system directed at China.
Because of how beneficial the Gangjeong base will be for the US military, many civilians and also reporters have taken to referring to it as an imposing US naval base, despite the fact that it is nominally South Korean. Even US politicians see it as a US effort. Sen. Fritz Hollings, a former senator of South Carolina, described “the U.S. policy of encirclement of Russia and China” in a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post (2011). Among other measures being taken, one cited was the action of “establishing a naval base with South Korea on Jeju Island” (Hollings 2011).
This portrays the construction as a tandem effort between the US and South Korea, and also clearly depicts it as a step in the plan to confront China and establish centers of power in the Asia-Pacific region. So, the construction of this base unjustly causes the innocent Jeju Island to be, quite literally, caught in the crossfire of the rising US-China tension. Based on its importance not only to the South Korean military and especially to the US military, it will become a much larger target for any opposing force.
This seems particularly unfair given Jeju-do’s tumultuous past and current standing as the “Island of Peace.” The Jeju Island Rebellion, commonly referred to as 4/3, was a horrific event that occurred on the island during the period leading up to the Korean War. In response to earlier demonstrations put on by Communists and other leftists on Jeju-do, the South Korean army was sent in on April 3, 1948 to put an end to these protests and sentiments in a most violent way.
There was a confirmed Communist guerrilla army located on Jeju Island, initially comprised of around 400 fighters, but the South Korean army chose to wreak utter havoc by performing mass shootings and completely decimating “red villages” by burning them to the ground, ultimately killing tens of thousands of people (Steinem 2011). By the time the main part of the rebellion officially ended in May of 1949, the estimates of casualties ranged from 30,000 to 60,000 victims (Chung 2012). In October of 2003, President Roh Moohyun (of South Korea) finally issued an apology to the victims and their families, and by January 2005 he took further measures to acknowledge the atrocity of the rebellion by designating “Jeju Island as the Island of World Peace based on Article 12 of the Special Act for the Jeju Free International City” (Chung 2012).
Some of the elderly inhabitants of Jeju Island were alive to witness the cruel and inhumane treatment that the islanders were subjected to during 4/3. Now, with the construction of the naval base, they are watching the military gradually impose upon their rights to safety and security. Their status as the “Island of Peace” should be respected, especially after how violated they were during the 1940s and ’50s. They deserve to remain at peace.
Thankfully, in recent years the plight of Jeju Island has come to the attention of the rest of the world, so it is no longer just the villagers fighting for their own selves. For example, Angie Zelter has been active alongside islanders in protests at the site of the construction. In one demonstration, where they positioned themselves on military land, she “stayed there until she was detained for her role in the protest” (Kang 2012).
In appeals to the international community, she and other activists try to emphasize the wide-reaching implications of this naval base. They share that even if the problems relating to this project which are exclusive to Jeju Island (such as the damage to the environment, and the threat to their way of life) are not enough to convince people to get involved, it is still a critical issue based on global repercussions it could have, relating to the tension between China and the US and all the rest of the Northeast Asian region (Kang 2012). It should not be seen as a Korean conflict but rather as a worldwide issue.
Gradually, more people are beginning to realize this. Documentaries are being made, such as a film by Woolwich filmmaker Regis Tramblay (‘Jeju, Island of Peace’… 2013). After spending three weeks on the island filming the documentary, the gravity of the situation is clear to him and so he is eager to spread word of his film, Jeju, Island of Peace: In the Crosshairs of War (‘Jeju, Island of Peace’… 2013). Additionally, other noted activists support the islanders of Jeju. Gloria Steinem and Robert Redford have both written articles (‘The Arms Race Intrudes on Paradise’ and ‘The Battle for Jeju Island: How the Arms Race is Threatening a Korean Paradise,’ respectively) on the subject, requesting the action of more people around the world. Professor Noam Chomsky has also come out with statements against the construction of the naval base.
Clearly, awareness of the issue is rising and is no longer contained within the borders of Jeju Island. This is a great step in the struggle against the base, but unfortunately construction is still carrying on as scheduled. Word must continue to spread, informing more people around the globe about this conflict and inciting them to help make a difference. The voice of the villagers must be heard.
In this case, in the name of “national security,” the South Korean government has chosen to sacrifice too much. The suffering of the people and environment of Jeju Island outweigh the positives of a naval station near to the South Sea. For an island otherwise known as Peace Island, Women’s Island, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, it is not being paid due respect.
While national security should obviously be important to a nation’s government, the government cannot in the process forget about the already existing valuable human and environmental resources located within its borders. The balance must be carefully assessed, and in this case Jeju Island should be preserved, for the sake of the villagers themselves and also in the interest of the rest of the world.
Author: Laura Hough is a rising junior undergraduate student at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She is pursuing a BS in her major of Environmental Studies and is a Korean Studies minor.
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Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.