Controversy over the ongoing project to build a strategic naval base on Jeju Island is escalating as opponents vehemently call for its suspension while the Defense Ministry vows to push ahead with its construction.
Since Gangjeong Village in Seogwipo of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province was designated as the site of the 977.6 billion won ($914.4 million) project in June 2007, controversy has persisted with both sides refusing to budge.
|Opponents rally against the project to establish a strategic naval base on Jeju Island in Gangjeong Village, Seogwipo City, on Saturday. (Yonhap News)|
Military officials claim that the construction is necessary to properly cope with contingencies in the southern sea area, secure the country’s maritime transportation routes and help boost the regional economy.
But opponents argue that the envisioned installation could lead to the militarization of the island, which the government designated as an “Island of World Peace” in 2005. They also claim that the base would cause environmental degradation, which would negatively influence the island’s tourism industry.
The conflict-ridden project calls for establishing a “military-civilian” compound on the island, 90 kilometers off the peninsula’s south coast, to provide piers and other related facilities to dock a mobile fleet of up to 20 naval vessels and two 150,000-ton cruisers.
Of the total budget, 140.5 billion won ― about 14 percent ― has already been spent on the initial construction work. Although the Navy signed two contracts with two construction firms to build pier facilities in January last year, significant progress has yet to be made due to incessant objections.
Taking their opposition to a new level, five opposition parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party and the minor Democratic Labor Party, urged the government to halt the construction and take into account public objections last Thursday.
“The construction is highly likely to damage the environment and ecosystem (of the island),” a fact-finding team of the five parties said in a press conference.
“We are concerned that this project could cause environmental damage to the coastal area of the village designated as a cultural asset preservation zone, and to the nearby areas listed on the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.”
Just minutes after the conference ended, the Defense Ministry reiterated its determination to complete the ongoing project, expressing concerns that the project has taken on political overtones and become ensnared in an ideological dispute.
“Activities opposing the project have been done mostly by those living outside Gangjeong Village in recent months. As they have intervened, they illegally occupied the sites and impeded the construction work, delaying construction and causing financial losses,” Major Gen. Lee Yong-dae, a senior ministry official, told reporters.
The construction has been put on hold for 10 months already, costing the ministry a monthly loss of 5.98 billion won, Lee added, stressing that some activists have been spreading “misleading” information about the project and confusing the public.
Another bone of contention is whether the envisioned base will be used by the U.S. military as a strategic outpost to secure its regional maritime hegemony given the island’s geographical location ― close to mainland China and Taiwan.
Critics argue that South Korea could allow its key ally, the U.S., to use the base, albeit temporarily, causing unnecessary military tensions between the U.S. and China. Some even speculate that the U.S could use it for another missile defense base capable of intercepting China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Defense Ministry said that although a U.S. warship could call at the base temporarily, many vessels from many countries including China and Japan make calls at foreign ports to join international military exercises or for other purposes.
Regarding the suspicion over the missile defense, it said that while the U.S. already has a MD base in Okinawa, there is no need to establish another base to cover the Northeast Asian region.
Touching on the allegations of U.S. military expansion on Jeju, the ministry believes that the U.S. would not be drawn to the Jeju base as it already has bases in Busan and Jinhae. It also added that the new base is part of efforts to reduce its reliance on the U.S. military.
Proponents also espouse the naval construction as the base would significantly shorten the time for a Korean naval ship to reach southern sea spots when maritime disputes with China or Japan occur.
For instance, if a dispute over Ieodo were to erupt, a warship could reach it from a Busan port in about 21 hours, but in some eight hours from the Jeju base. It takes about 14 hours for a ship to arrive there from Shanghai.
China has made a territorial claim over the island although South Korea effectively maintains control of Ieodo, which is closer to Korea than any other country.
Some critics, however, say that the distance is meaningless given that a long-range strategic weapon deployable on any part of the peninsula could threaten to foil the attempt to gain control over the island.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)