In early April I had the chance to visit one of the most beautiful areas in South Korea. Gangjeong Village on the island of Jeju is a small farming and fishing community on the island’s southern coast. Entering the village you see citrus groves and greenhouses on all sides. On the main street, women were sitting on the sidewalk cleaning fish and selling them to the locals. The cherry trees lining the main street were just beginning to bloom. It was a welcome break from congested and crowded Seoul where I live. In many ways it reminds me of the island in Denmark where I grew up. Nothing special seems to be going on, and that’s the beauty of it. But this community of approximately 1,500 farmers and fishermen is in the midst of a struggle against the South Korean government’s attempt to build a major naval base right in the middle of their village. The Navy and the Korean government claim that the base will have minimum impact on the environment and that it will create jobs and attract new tourists to the area. The villagers will have none of it. They see that the base will destroy their way of life, their village and the peace that Jeju islanders strive for. But the navy continues to raze farms and fishing grounds despite their protests.
Jeju’s Geo-strategic Curse
The island of Jeju is as far away from Seoul as you can get geographically and mentally. This autonomous island province, located south/southwest of the Korean peninsula is in many ways distinct from mainland Korea. It’s relative geographic isolation, volcanic geological history, and warmer climate has formed a people whose traditions, food, and culture is as distinct as the islands natural features. Because of this, Jeju is also the biggest single tourist destination in Korea often named “Honeymoon Island” as it is a favored destination for newlywed Korean couples. The island economy is also distinct. Agriculture, tourism, and fishing are the three main economic sectors, helping the island preserve its natural beauty and traditional way of life. Development in Jeju can be said to have followed a pace in which it was possible to modernize without having to completely compromise the island’s environment, traditions and culture. This is not to say that Jeju is an untouched island paradise. Luxury tourist resorts, golf courses, and tacky tourist attractions can be found in many places, but once you venture a bit off the beaten path you will find the Jeju that makes it a special place.
Nevertheless, Jeju’s curse is its strategic location between South Korea and Japan, and its close proximity to China. It is only 300 miles from the Chinese mainland and Shanghai. For centuries, Jeju has been the battleground for conflicts that had little to do with the islanders themselves. In modern times, Jeju was annexed along with the rest of the Korean Empire by Japan in 1910. Thousands of island men were sent to work in mines and factories in Japan and Manchuria, while women were forced into prostitution to service the Japanese Imperial Army. Towards the end of World War II, the Japanese heavily fortified the island, deployed 70,000 soldiers, and forced the islanders to construct coastal defenses in anticipation of a U.S. invasion. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Jeju joined the rest of Korea to celebrate the end of decades of colonial rule and exploitation. But for the people of Jeju, the horrors experienced under Japanese rule were nothing compared to what was to come.
The Jeju Massacres
The division of the Korean Peninsula by the United States and the Soviet Union turned Jeju into a battlefield for subsequent cold war conflicts on the peninsula. In 1948, with U.S. and U.N. support, South Korea held elections that established a separate state in the south, thus solidifying Korea’s division. In response, 30,000 islanders in Jeju went out to protest the elections, which was abruptly ended when police opened fire and killed eight protesters. This prompted riots throughout the island and the boycott of the South Korean elections by Jeju islanders. Unfortunately, the United States overseers annulled the Jeju election results due to their lack of participation, and Syngman Rhee was elected without the votes from Jeju counted. But that wasn’t all. Korean right wing nationalists labeled the entire island as Communists sympathizers. When U.S. backed leader Syngman Rhee took power following the elections, he initiated a massive “Red” cleansing campaign targeted the Jeju general population. Using the South Korean military and ultra rightist paramilitary groups from the Northwest Korean Youth Association, the Rhee government employed a scorched earth strategy of repression resulting in the indiscriminate raping of women and burning of villages. Thousands of people were killed. It is estimated that 70 percent of entire villages were razed to the ground and 30,000 people—ten percent of the island’s population—were murdered. It was a brutal precursor to what the mainland would experience during the Korean War.
At the newly constructed Peace Park Museum and Memorial for the massacre, one can take a few moments to reflect on Jeju’s fate as a battleground for imperial and ideological conflicts and the meaningless loss of lives that people here have suffered. I went there on April 4th for the commemoration of “Sasam” as the massacre is called locally. From the thousands of people who were gathered for the memorial ceremony, it is clear that the massacre has left deep scars in Jeju society. For years, any mention of the massacre could lead to imprisonment and torture. Relatives of those who had been labeled as Communists were prevented from taking public service positions or jobs in many companies. Many are still afraid to talk about what happened.
It was not until 2006 that the late President Roh Moo-Hyun officially apologized for the massacre and designated Jeju “Island of World Peace”. For 50 years, successive governments in Seoul silenced the Korean people’s memories of systematic murder, rape and torture. As one exits the museum, a sign reads: “Jeju April 3rd Incident will be remembered as a symbol of the preciousness of peace, unity and human rights.” But the government’s memory is short. Plans for a major naval base on Jeju had been in the works since 2002 at different locations, but opposition from local residents halted construction several times.
The Plight of Gangjeong Village
In Gangjeong however, the navy and the South Korean government seem determined to construct the base by any means necessary. I met an artist and activist Sung-Hee Choi is living in Gangjeong to support the struggle of the villagers. Gangjeong means the “Village of Water,” she says, referring to the abundance of surface fresh water in the area, a rarity on this island of porous volcanic rock. The clean water from the Gangjeong stream is what makes the farmland some of the most fertile on the island. Greenhouse after greenhouse and miles of citrus orchards confirm that farming here is a good way of life for the residents. Much of this will soon be paved over if the Navy and central government get their way. As we walk down to the beach, we pass bulldozed fields with chopped down wilted citrus trees and collapsed green houses. The Navy contractors from Samsung and Daerim are not wasting any time. It is quite obvious that such physical destruction is part of the Navy’s strategy to silence resistance in the village. Some residents have already given up the fight and sold their land fearing that they will be fined if they did not sell. The government alleges that the construction is legal, that the residents have been offered fair compensation, but many locals feel pressured and cajoled into selling their land.
Down at the beach one quickly recognizes that this is a uniquely beautiful coastal stretch. The volcanic rocks, many coves and unique fresh water tidal pools provide habitats for a wealth of animal and plant life. Underneath the water, endangered soft corals provide habitat for an abundance of sea life. The importance of these ecosystems have been officially recognized by UNESCO as part of its designation of the Jeju biosphere reserve and the provincial government is currently seeking nomination as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. But again the government seems to care little about these designations. Construction companies have already destroyed large areas of volcanic rock formations with their bulldozers and trucks.
As we walk along the cliffs and lava rock formations, we have a moment to stop at a few of the fresh water tide pools filled with marine life. “I never noticed these pools before,” Sunghee says. “I have been too busy watching the navy watching us.” She points to the navy headquarters a few hundred yards away from where they track and monitor all movement on the coast. Except for a few women gathering shellfish, we are alone. Sunghee tells me that usually spies working for Samsung or the Navy disguised as sport fishers watch them. I can see that the constant monitoring is taking its toll on both activists and villagers. Each time I saw Sunghee over the few days, she always looked exhausted. From the perspective of villagers and activists, the navy is playing a game of psychological warfare with those who oppose base construction. We walk back to where we entered the beach. Artworks, posters and boards tell visitors about the unique ecosystems of this coastal stretch and how all of it will be destroyed by the base construction.
On the rocks we meet well-known movie critic Professor Yang Yoon-Mo. A Jeju native, Mr. Yang has lived in a tent on the rocks for four years to protest the base construction. I ask for a brief interview but Mr. Yang declines. “There is no more to be said or explained,” says Yang. “Now I just want to enjoy the beauty of this place.” It is a beautiful and quiet spring day and the coast is almost deserted besides a few tourists. The peace is disturbed only when two minivans come down to the beach. Sunghee’s and Mr. Yang’s faces light up. The minivans have transported solidarity delegations from Okinawa and Gwangju to Gangjeong to support the villagers. Both delegations have experienced the consequences of being victims of larger geopolitical and ideological conflicts. Okinawans have protested U.S. military presence for decades and Gwangju delegates are relatives of the victims of the brutal Gwangju massacre in 1980.
Sunghee explains that construction machines are usually there, but that they were probably withdrawn for fear of conflict with protestors during the weekend of the Sasam commemoration and the solidarity demonstration announced by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). Several villagers, including the mayor, have been injured and arrested from skirmishes with the police. It seems that this day the Navy and construction companies have decided it is wisest to withdraw given all the media attention during Sasam.
Why the Naval Base on Jeju
The Korean Navy claims that the new “eco-friendly” naval base will create jobs and increased security for the island. But it is difficult to imagine an eco-friendly 50-hectare naval base that will house 8,000 marines, up to 20 destroyers, several submarines and two 150,000-ton luxury cruise liners. Considering that each destroyer has up to a 100,000 horsepower engine it is difficult to see how the base can be considered safe for an ecologically sensitive environment, not to mention that most of the volcanic rock formation will be paved over with cement and concrete. The second argument is that the new base will provide an economic boost for the island. But what kind of jobs will be created? People in Gangjeong are farmers and fishers living off the wealth of land and sea. The jobs that usually accompany military bases are more likely to be in service industries such as bars, brothels and souvenir shops. The sheer size of the naval base will inevitably lead to the complete erasure of this community, and the villagers know it.
The final argument for the base is that it will provide vital security for the island. But history shows otherwise. Any time a major military force has been present on the island it has led to death, displacement, and destruction of the local population. Jeju islanders experienced atrocities from the Japanese during the occupation and later by their own countrymen during the Jeju massacre. The real issue here is not about the security of Jeju, but rather the strategic placement of a new naval base tasked with securing shipping lanes which are the lifeline of South Korea’s resource intensive corporations. This new strategically located fleet will also take on an increasingly offensive role in the East China and South China Sea.
In a recent article Christine Ahn and Sukjong Hong reveal how the base will play a strategic role in efforts by the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance to reign in Chinese naval expansion. While South Korea claims that the base is not intended for use by the United States, the likelihood that the U.S. Navy would utilize the base in any military conflict in the region is obvious given U.S. operational control over Korea’s military. The base is also viewed by some in the military establishment as symbolic of South Korea’s emergence as a world power in which the navy will play a central role. In an interview with the conservative paper JoongAng Daily Admiral Jung Ok-keun of the ROK Navy said, “The establishment of the flotilla is a sign that we are becoming one of the powerful navies in the world, the goal we have been dreamed of.” There can hardly be any doubt that this new 953 billion Won naval base will serve as a strategic offensive outpost for South Korea and its allies. In this context it is difficult to understand how a base in Gangjeong will increase security for Jeju residents. In a potential military conflict with China, Gangjeong will be an important strategic target, just as Pearl Harbor was for the Japanese in WWII.
Sunghee and I walk back to the village. She is clearly encouraged by the arrival of the Gwangju and Okinawa delegations, and re-energized by the peaceful and beautiful coastline. After teaching an English class to some local students, we walk over to one of the local restaurants for dinner before joining a solidarity demonstration organized by KCTU later that evening. We have to give up finding food in the center of the village because most of the restaurant owners have left for the demonstration. Sunghee tells me that the village has been torn apart by the struggle – neighbor against neighbor, and relatives and against relatives. Many have given up, exhausted and fearful of the Navy. Not all, however, have thrown in the towel.
We arrive at the community soccer field situated right across the road from the main gate to the Navy headquarters. We greet the dog that activists, in a gesture of humor, have placed to watch the Navy headquarters, and join the 1,300 protesters who have come from all over Korea to support the villagers. It is already dark when we arrive, but the hundreds of candles held by the protesters provide a comforting atmosphere. Protesters are of all ages and walks of life: families with children, villagers, workers and activists. Watching the crowd sing songs for peace and reunification, it is hard to believe the government’s claim that the protest is the work of a handful of extreme activists.
Sitting in the bus on the way back to my hotel, I reflect on the last few days in Jeju and how if this naval base is not stopped, the Gangjeong villagers’ livelihoods, histories and traditions may soon be erased from memory, all because of strategic geo-political ambitions that have nothing to do with them or their way of life. On April 6th, two days after my visit to Gangjeong, the navy began construction again. Sunghee Choi and Yoon-mo Yang were arrested and detained by the police. Sunghee was released the following day, but Mr. Yang was not released until April 8th. Meanwhile the villagers continue to block the construction of the base. To stay updated, follow Sunghee Choi’s blog.
This UNESCO World Heritage designated island stands to lose much of what makes it part of our world heritage. The transformation of Jeju into a military base also shows that much has yet to change in South Korea before a true democracy is established. The strategies of subtle coercion and lack of transparency by both the Navy and the South Korean government against its own people are discouraging to any person concerned about democracy and the rights of people. The struggle of Gangjeong villagers for land, life, and peace should concern us all.
*Anders Riel Müller is a fellow with the Korea Policy Institute living in South Korea.