Monday, August 15, 2011

Visit to Jeju Island Naval Base

Last week at the invitation of the Christian Conference of Asia I participated in a church leaders' solidaity visit to Jeju Island in South Korea
The main focus was to witness the ongoing resistance of residents of Kangjeong village at the southern tip of Jeju Island to the construction of a Korea-United States Naval Base in the area and to understand the concerns about this development. We were accompanied by representatives from the Korean National Council of Churches who organised our itinerary.

During the visit we visited Kangjeong Village, participated in worship with the community, saw first hand a confrontation between about 150 villagers and 150 police, met with Christian leaders, visited the Peace Park and participated in a community Candlelight Vigil.

During the visit we identified the following concerns:

1. Militarization. The proposed Jeju Island base would constitute an additional military base outside the mainland of the Korean Peninsula. Jeju, like Okinawa, will represent an expansion of the geopolitical influence and military control of the USA, countering China's growing economic and military influence in north-east Asia. The new Aegis fleet being prepared will add to the arms race taking place in this region. Jeju Island will potentially become a target of military attacks from contending powers in the region.

2. Destruction of environment and community. Kangjeong is a farming and fishing village and the naval base will destroy the livelihood of the farmers and fisherfolk of the area. Residents will be dislocated and social problems will emerge. The marine environment will be severely impacted. In Jeju there are rare plants, animals, corals which led to the designation of Jeju as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. These treasures will be threatened, possibly lost.

Environmental scientists claim that no credible environmental impact studies have been conducted. There is clearly a need for such study and a need for the results to be available for scrutiny. We also saw an urgent need for a comprehensive social impact study.

3. Concerns about Government policy, processes and Police presence. We heard reports that among the villagers more than 90% are opposed to the Base. Authorities claim a mandate on the basis of a meeting with a small non representative group at which only 80 of the 1800 villagers were present. In a democratic nation, a proper consultative process must be followed in any major decision like this one.

We observed an overwhelming police presence and were concerned about the intimidating nature of this presence. I got caught up myself in the confrontation but thankfully the potential violence was contained on this occasion. We are also concerned about cases of arrest and fines. We read an article saying "about 15 villagers have been charged with obstruction of official business and 3 are in jail. 14 villagers have been sued for 290 million won in damages".

Not everyone is opposed to this Base. In fact we met with a group of leaders from a very large Korean Church who support the construction as a necessary component of South Korea's defence.

It might be fanciful to expect that the Korean Government will stop this construction having already invested so much in it. But there is a gathering local and international momentum developing against it.

It made me wonder, again, how different our world might be if we invested as much time, energy and money into exploring paths that lead to peace rather than war.

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