In 2005, Jeju was christened the ‘Island of World Peace’, by way of apology for a brutal historical massacre there. But just seven years later, the South Korean government has blasted the island’s sacred Gureombi rocks to make way for the construction of a naval base. A fierce campaign of nonviolent action has risen up in opposition.
Bulldozers are already swallowing up farmland as construction work begins in the small fishing village of Gangjeong on Jeju – a pristine volcanic island off the coast of southwestern Korea, whose beautiful beaches and subtropical climate make it a top destination for honeymooners and holidaymakers. If completed, the base will host 8,000 marines and up to 20 destroyer submarines. Conservative pundits say the country needs the base to counter the ‘national security threat’ posed by North Korea. But activists suspect wider geopolitical forces are at work. Gangjeong artist Choi Sung-Hee says it’s all about China and the US. The base may serve as ‘a port of call for the US ballistic missile defence system’, according to the Save Jeju Island campaign, making their home the unwilling focal point of China-US military tension.
The base’s projected environmental impact is another concern.
Gangjeong is situated between three UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites and nine UNESCO Geoparks. Environmentalists say the navy will destroy the area’s marine ecosystem, threatening several endangered species.
There is also the question of mistreatment of locals. Police and security guards working for construction firms Samsung and Daelim stand accused of numerous counts of assault and harassment. Some 450 people have been arrested since January 2010, including British peace activist Angie Zelter. The authorities have arbitrarily charged protesters with obstruction of business or ‘government affairs’. Meanwhile, the state has denied the Jeju Island Council access to coastal waters.
The government has refused to halt the project, despite repeated requests by island authorities to delay construction and re-examine the plans since the base was first proposed five years ago. Pro-government conservatives have branded the protest movement ‘pro-North Korean’ and ‘anti-growth’ but, despite this counter attack, Choi reports that the movement’s allies are growing.
Trades unions and women’s organizations have joined the campaign, as well as religious groups – most notably the Catholic clergy. ‘It’s unprecedented,’ says peace activist Regina Pyon of the church’s engagement, ‘one of the defining characteristics of the struggle.’ Police have arrested several priests, and, in Seoul, Jesuit clergy have held ‘street masses’ outside Samsung offices.
With South Korea going to the polls at the end of the year, the main opposition political party has pledged to re-examine the project. But even as support grows, the elderly villagers of Gangjeong are beginning to suffer resistance fatigue. Endless meetings, harassment and imprisonment have taken their toll on locals, whom Zelter describes as ‘outnumbered and exhausted’. She hopes that fresh solidarity and energy from ‘outside’ will revitalize the campaign.