August 18, 2011
Island’s Naval Base Stirs Opposition in South Korea
New York Times
“Fight to the death against the American imperialists’ anti-China naval base!” says one banner.
That declaration — and the underlying issue dividing this village of 1,000 fishermen and farmers on Jeju Island — mirrors the broader quandary South Korea faces, caught between the United States, its longstanding military ally, and China, its former battlefield foe but now its leading trading partner.
In January, the South Korean Navy began construction on a $970 million base in Gangjeong. Once completed in 2014, it will be home to 20 warships, including submarines, that the navy says will protect shipping lanes for
American ships cruising East Asian seas will be permitted to visit the port, the Defense Ministry says, and many villagers and anti-base activists from the Korean mainland suspect that the naval base will serve less as a shield against South Korea’s prime enemy, North Korea, than as an outpost for the United States Navy to project its power against China.
Fear of becoming “the shrimp whose back gets broken in a fight between whales” — a popular saying in this country, whose territory has been the battlefield of bigger powers — is palpable in this village, where palm trees sway in the wind and low-slung homes lie snug behind walls of volcanic rock.
“I don’t understand why we’re trying so hard to accommodate something people in Okinawa tried so hard to resist,” said Kim Jong-hwan, 55, a tangerine farmer, referring to the Japanese islanders’ struggle against the American military base there. “When I think how the Americans go around the world starting wars, I can only expect the worst.”
Older islanders have harrowing memories of war. Shortly before and during the 1950-53 Korean War, government troops cracking down on people they suspected of being leftists who might sympathize with North Korea devastated Jeju, burning villages and killing about 30,000 people, or one-tenth of the population. In 2005, the government designated Jeju, sometimes romanized as
For months, Mr. Kim and other villagers have joined the anti-base activists, squatting in the center of the construction zone. When the police tried to remove them recently, they chained themselves to trees.
The South Korean Navy has erected a billboard in the village displaying an artist’s conception of a state-of-the-art, “eco-friendly” port, covering about 125 acres and receiving luxury cruise ships as well as military vessels.
“A new attraction for beautiful Jeju!” it proclaims.
Nearby, protesters’ banners accuse the navy of destroying the environment and the villagers’ way of life.
“Don’t bring war here!” one says.
Both the South Korean and American militaries insist that the
Ever since the United States fought alongside it in the Korean War, South Korea has considered its alliance with Washington a top priority, a position re-emphasized after North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and its recent military provocations, including the shelling of another South Korean island in November. But many South Koreans, especially younger ones, suspect that
Meanwhile, trade with
“The question behind Jeju is, can
Yun Yon, a retired navy vice admiral, said, “We may do business with the Chinese, but still it’s the Americans we should do security with.”
Song Kang-ho, an activist against the base, disagreed. “With the
Yet, pressure from both
In March, Ellen O. Tauscher, the American under secretary of state for arms control and international security, said the United States wanted South Korea to expand the allies’ low-level missile defense ties into an integrated regional missile defense system that some experts suspect was intended as a shield against China.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, said the new Aegis destroyers to be based in Jeju would help defend
But they “won’t provide much defense for
China had already complained, in 2004, about South Korea’s missile defense cooperation with the United States, said Kim Jong-dae, who served in the office of Roh Moo-hyun,
Partly out of deference to
Still, Matthew Hoey, an arms control analyst based in Cambridge, Mass., who recently visited Gangjeong to support those fighting the base, argued that the base could set off a regional arms race by prompting China to upgrade its own strategic deterrent.
The divide in this Korean village has turned emotional, often erupting into shouting matches. Those who favor the base and those who do not avoid one another on the street and even shop at different stores, according to villagers on both sides.
Gangjeong once had 50 various social associations, but the members’ ties have been broken as “even fathers and sons, as well as bothers, turned their back against each other,” said Mr. Kim, the tangerine farmer.
Speaking about the opponents of the base, Koh Jong-pyo, 47, an abalone fisherman, said: “They worry too much. Think what it could do for the local economy whenever an American aircraft carrier arrives with thousands of sailors and their cash.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs