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Protest Heightens Against Military Base at South Korea’s Island of World Peace

Renowned Jeju Island based artist Koh Gilchun’s art is a common sight on and around the Gangjeong base construction site. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

They have huddled together in their makeshift camp through rain, snow and even typhoons – occupying government-claimed land and defying authorities with their art, protest songs, candlelit vigils and handmade signs. This movement was in the making for four years before the full-on activist occupation of the site.

Villagers and activists protest the arrest of the democratically elected mayor of Gangjeong village Mayor Kang Dong-Kyun. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

It was only few months ago that more than a handful of people outside of South Korea had caught wind of what was taking place in Gangjeong village. On September 2, 2011, the occupation of the Gangjeong military base construction site ended – the result of a brutal crackdown by nearly 2,000 riot police. More than 35 people were arrested that day. At this moment, the resistance continues and is stronger than ever.

The Jungdeok coastline, site of the Jeju Island naval base. Slated for demolition by the South Korean Navy and Samsung, the coast is of spiritual significance to villagers, who are no longer allowed access to the site. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

Since 2007, residents of Jeju Island, also officially designated the Island of World Peace, have been risking their lives and their freedom to prevent the construction of a naval base on what many revere as the picturesque island's most beautiful coastline. This military base, if completed, will be home to both US and South Korean naval vessels and a sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system. The proposed location of this base is Gangjeong, a small farming and fishing village that has reluctantly become the site of an epic battle for peace.

Catholic priests stage a sit-in in Gangjeong village outside of the construction site gates. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

The Jeju Island naval base resistance is the absolute front line of the struggle for international peace, and is increasingly gaining recognition as such in the minds of leading scholars, activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). At last count, more than 125 international NGOs were listed as supporters of the anti-base effort. The Gangjeong villagers have been waging a tireless and highly effective fight that stands in stark contrast to what has been a largely unsuccessful international peace movement that all too often lacks focus, unity and realistic goals. Winning this fight is possible and can be accomplished within 12 months if more people rally to the side of the villagers both on the ground and on the web.

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For international peace activists, the Save Jeju Island campaign is what many have been waiting for: An entirely winnable cause for peace with significant international implications. The Jeju Island naval base project is not only highly symbolic, but also quite dire in its potential impact on global security. The planned Jeju naval base facility would have a capacity for two submarines, 20 large destroyers and up to two aircraft carriers. Its purpose, as stated by both South Korean and US military officials, is to project force toward China. Many experts believe that the location of the base will provide a forward-operating installation in the event of a military conflict between the US and China. The Jeju base could become a flashpoint to trigger a large-scale military conflict between superpowers.

A young peace activist joins a demonstration on Jeju Island against the base. Protesters are a balanced mix of men, women, children and the elderly. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

The Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) system will also be based at the Jeju Island base, which will be among the largest naval installations in the region if completed. This Aegis BMD platform is a small component of a much larger US strategy to contain China – at the expense of South Korea. If the base is completed, Jeju Island will be destined for destruction as tensions escalate between the two world military goliaths. War hawks in the US are not shy about stating that an eventual war between China and the US is possible. The nation of Korea has been caught in the middle of other nations' wars far too many times already.

A victory against the base in Gangjeong village could be the first shot across the bow of the military industrial complex. A Gangjeong victory could serve as a model that could be scaled up and applied to the next fight for peace.

Resistance leaders Dr. Song Kang-Ho and Choi Sung-Hee place themselves under a large crane entering the Jeju naval base site. Both activists were imprisoned for this action. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

The peace activists and residents are waging a 24-hour struggle. Each day in Gangjeong, the villagers organize events that are worthy of international media attention in the face of overwhelming force. Though, because of the remoteness of the village and language and cultural barriers with international activists and media, for the first four and a half years, their efforts resided in what is referred to as the “Jeju bubble.” Today, that has changed since the Save Jeju Island campaign has been featured in media outlets around the world, such as Al Jazeera, MSNBC, PressTV, The Washington Times and The New York Times. More coverage and action on the part of international activists and media is needed now more than ever.

The case against the naval base is divided into four categories: (1) International Security, (2) Human Rights, (3) Environmental/Cultural and (4) Legal. These categories provide abundant opportunities for outreach.

International Security

Located approximately 300 miles from China, the simple presence of the Jeju Island naval base alone will undermine China's national security and strategic nuclear deterrent. This ability to undermine grows exponentially when we take into consideration the presence of Aegis destroyers outfitted with a missile defense platform. Currently, up to three Aegis Destroyers will be present on the base site. That number could rise to six or even higher with occasional visits of US Aegis ships that should be expected. Many world-renowned experts and missile defense analysts have stated that this base is completely ineffective at addressing the true threat to South Korean security – that being the missile threat from North Korea, since the Aegis system cannot target DPRK ballistic missiles as a result of their flight trajectory and altitude.

The location of the base does, on the other hand, serve as a prime location for the intercept of DF-3 and DF-4 ballistic missiles located in Southeast China that could, in theory, be used to target Japan. The base also is expected to serve as a temporary port for US submarines and carriers such as the USS George Washington, which has been involved in war-gaming exercises with the Republic of Korea Navy. It is especially concerning when the depth of the planned Gangjeong port is studied, which suggests that it is more than adequate to host nuclear-armed US Trident submarines (SSBN). It is not farfetched to imagine a Cuban Missile-style crisis in the future: a standoff between the US and China – with the Island of World Peace caught in the middle.

The temporary basing of an SSBN carrying nuclear weapons during a time of extreme tension between the US and China would provide an unparalleled first-strike ability and set off a rapid escalation scenario. For this and many reasons, China is and will continue to be increasingly concerned about the Jeju Island naval base. Simply put, this military venture stands to benefit US national and economic security policy and not that of South Korea. The base will create far more problems than it will solve. Contrary to some misconceptions in the press, South Korea and China have positive relations. In fact, China is South Korea's No. 1 trading partner. There can be no mystery as to what nation will benefit economically from a breakdown in Republic of Korea-People's Republic of China relations.

Human Rights

The second dimension against the Jeju base argument is the negative impact it has had on the fundamental human rights of those who are actively resisting the project. There have been many documented instances of Gangjeong villagers being targeted by police for their political beliefs. Police officers from Jeju Island and the mainland have fined, imprisoned and held innocent villagers without bail for extended periods of time for legally standing up and expressing their discontent with the base project. These sentences have been enforced by the Supreme Prosecutors office under guidance from the Lee Myung-Bak-ruled Blue House.

Resistance leader Choi Sung-Hee lies in a road blocking the back of a large construction vehicle on route to the pristine Jungdeok coastline – home to the illegal naval base construction project. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

The primary legal tool used to oppress activists is known in the Korean Penal Code as Article 314 or Obstruction of Business. This law is a tool commonly used for pressuring trade unions and cracking down on public assemblies that threaten the interests of Korea's 1 percent. Penalties are stiff and carry with them a sentence of up to five years imprisonment and a fine not exceeding 15,000,000 won ($13297.00 USD). In the case of the Jeju naval base, activists have been held for as many as six months on a single Article 314 charge while awaiting trial. Pretenses for arrest include simply associating with trade unions and participating in protests deemed a threat to corporate interests. This is a guilt-by-association criteria for making arrests, which, accordingly, has been chastised by trade unions and NGOs both in Korea and abroad.

Guilt by association is taken a further step in a nation this is in the midst of a social networking revolution running parallel to multiple, popular uprisings under the specter of an archaic six-decade-old National Security Law. National Security Law cases under investigation have risen dramatically in Korea and this trend is increasing. The South Korean National Police actively monitor Twitter and Facebook to identify key activists and resistance leaders on Jeju Island. Villagers and activists have been photographed and filmed at nonviolent rallies, community events and while simply walking down the street. Some are only lightly affiliated in the anti-naval base resistance. Such police activity is to be expected, though it is unacceptable in light of a recent wave of innocent citizens being called in for questioning by detectives.

Recently, 200 Gangjeong villagers and activists received letters stating that they must present themselves for an interview with detectives. These innocent people have committed no crime and are not affiliated with any criminal enterprises. If these targeted villagers and activists do not arrive for questioning, they are hit with crushing monetary penalties and can even be arrested. Members of the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island have been regularly presenting evidence of these law enforcement tactics to leading international human rights organizations and investigations are underway.

Most recently, three men were released from prison after being held without bail for 92 days. Their only crime was an Article 314 violation. One of these men was the democratically elected mayor of the village. Additionally, a female journalist reporting on the Gangjeong naval base resistance was recently arrested, verbally harassed and accused by police of being a communist.

Jeju Culture and the Environment

The third argument against the naval base project includes a combination of cultural and environmental insensitivities on the part of the South Korean government, Republic of Korea's Navy and lead contractors Samsung and Daelim.

Member of the South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration search for relics and human remains from the Joseon Dynasty at a location where Daelim construction tried to illegally extend the base perimeter onto private land. (Photo: Campaign to Save Jeju Island)

The archeological significance of the Gangjeong naval base construction site is well documented. Historic relics from the Joseon Dynasty are scattered widely across the base site and have been recently discovered along with human remains. There are archeological digs underway across the construction zone. Despite these significant findings, the lead contractors on the project, Daelim and Samsung, are plowing forward with little regard. At this moment, these companies are racing as fast as possible to build the base before more relics are discovered – plowing parcels of land that are culturally and historically significant.

Jeju Island has endured a dark and painful past. The last time such a military base was located on Jeju Island, an estimated 30,000-60,000 people were killed in a genocide known as the Sasam. One-third of those who lost their lives were women, children and the elderly. These innocent Jeju Islanders were murdered by the South Korean security services under the authority of a US military-run government beginning in 1948. It was only in 2005 that a formal apology came to the people of Jeju Island from the South Korean government – along with it was the official designation that Jeju would be forever known as “The Island of World Peace.” It was around this time period that Jeju was selected as the location of a new naval facility.

It is a surety that the Gangjeong naval base will deliver more trauma, pain and death to the people in Jeju at some point in the future – this is an absolute certainty. Maybe not in one year, many not in ten years, but that day will come if Jeju is militarized.

Jeju Island is an idyllic location that boasts three United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Natural Heritage Sites – this is more than any other single geographic location on the planet. The nearest UNESCO site to the base is approximately two kilometers away. There are nine UNESCO geoparks on the island as well. Moreover, the island is known as a global biosphere reserve because of the diversity of its plants and animals. Most recently, Jeju was declared one of seven new wonders of nature in an international competition.

The coastline where the base is being constructed is one of the only locations on all of Jeju Island that has a natural spring with crystal-clear water. The preservation of this environment with such a massive military facility is impossible. What few people know is that this entire area was designated an “Absolute Preservation Zone,” meaning that it was protected. The military simply ignored that designation.

The Navy claims that they are constructing an “environmentally friendly military base” – an absurd comment only rivaled by claims that the Navy can reconstitute coral being dredged by lead contractor Samsung, and that endangered and at risk species in the area will be relocated and unharmed by the project.


The fourth component is the legal dimension – specifically referring to the process that led to the approval of the base construction in the first place. At face value, the base construction approval process seems to have been approved by a democratic vote. This is the claim made by the South Korean military and conservative politicians on a regular basis. The truth is that only 87 people out of 1,800 residents had an opportunity to cast a vote on this matter. The remaining villagers had absolutely no voice in the discussions, contrary to what is claimed by the military. There was also no paper trail to provide transparency into the sham vote, since there were no paper ballots. Votes were cast by applause – a individual clapping indicated a yea vote.

What is most disturbing is that a local media outlet announced that the base construction project was approved before the voting process was even completed. When the village held their own revote, that fairly included the entire community, 94 percent of all villagers opposed the military base – yet, the government and military refused to recognize the results. The people of Gangjeong above all their demands are simply requesting a new, fair referendum that ensures all people in the village have a voice. This is not an extreme or radical demand. A new referendum will end the protests and this five-year battle that has disrupted a community, left residents in prison and has compromised the local economy.

The lack of transparency and abundance of illegalities are mounting, yet the project continues. Recently, the provincial government called on the military to halt the demolition of the coastline, yet the military regularly operates above the provincial government and they refused. The military is running the show on Jeju Island, above the people, above the provincial government.

Today, despite the unfair tactics being used against them, the Gangjeong resistance has become a global movement spanning multiple areas of activism from environmental to anti-war. More than 125 organizations are involved. In Korea, the protests against the Korean-United States Free Trade Agreement is converging with the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island. This is a very critical time, and the project can be halted with increased international pressure. With more activists around the world working together, calling attention to the militarization of the Island of World Peace, we can stop this dangerous and shortsighted project.

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