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November-December 2011

Vol. 36, No. 6


South Korea: Naval base threatens harmony

The following piece was written by Maryknoll Fr. Russ Feldmeier, who lives and works in South Korea.

A quiet fishing and farming village in an idyllic coastal setting on the island of Jeju is being destroyed to build a huge South Korean naval base. Rather than promoting the peace that Isaiah called for, Jeju will become a lightning rod for military tension in Northeast Asia. As reported in the September-October NewsNotes, the naval base is being pushed by the U.S. and Korean governments despite strong opposition from local inhabitants, environmentalists and the Catholic Church.

The base would include a sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system, which would have a capacity for two submarines, 20 large destroyers and up to two aircraft carriers. It is obvious that such a large base is not aimed at North Korea, but at China. The base on Jeju would be right on the shipping lane through which China brings 80 percent of its oil. This is a dangerous escalation of military might which China understandably sees as a threat to its national security. One can only imagine the response the U.S. would make if China built such a port only 300 miles off the U.S. coast.

The Catholic Church strongly supports the inhabitants of Jeju in their struggle against the base. Bishop Kang Woo-il, who is both the head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea and the bishop of Jeju, sees this issue from four different but interrelated perspectives.

  • It is a peace issue. Bishop Kang points out that "[w]e see this as a peace issue not just for our country, but also an issue for China, Japan and Korea….If this military base becomes a reality, it will only stimulate a larger conflict in Northeast Asia. We believe that this is not healthy for the peace of Korea, for Northeast Asia, and for the whole world."
  • It is a democratic issue. The wishes of the people have been ignored as the government has pushed through the beginning of construction.
  • It is an ecological issue. The bishop states: "On the one hand, the government is to host the 2012 World Conservation Congress in Jeju Island, proudly hailing Jeju Island as the only place in the world to have been awarded the 'triple crown' by UNESCO [designated as a Biosphere Reserve, a World Natural Heritage and a Global Geopark.] On the other hand, the naval base will require dredging of the sea bed and building concrete dikes. However, the coastal water of Gangjeong is one of the most beautiful natural preservation areas in Jeju Island: it contains a colony of soft coral which is designated as a national natural treasure and it is also the habitat for endangered species such as the 'red feet crab'."
  • It involves a very deep communal wound. In 1948, at the time of the U.S. military government in Korea, there was a massacre of 30,000 men, women and children in Jeju. It has become nationally recognized as a genocide. One aspect of healing from the horror of this genocide was that Jeju was designated an Island of Peace by former president Roh Mu Hyon. However, the naval base once again has brought up the old wounds from the genocide, as police have been brought from the mainland into the island to clamp down on the protests of the people. Some have been arrested, and an outspoken village leader is still in jail.

In solidarity, on October 10, 2011, hundreds of Korean priests and thousands of religious sisters, lay persons and ordinary citizens gathered in Jeju from all over South Korea to express their solidarity with the inhabitants of Jeju.

There is a need for international solidarity. It has been reported that when several U.S. Americans called the Korean Embassy in Washington to register concerns, they all received similar versions of the same prepared response, "Don't call us; call the U.S. State or Defense departments; they are the ones who are pressuring us to build this base." Pressure must be brought on the U.S. government and the Pentagon to stop pushing for a naval base that will surely be a threat to peace in Northeast Asia.

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