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The Peninsula

Paradise Jeju Island: a Tahiti in the South Pacific?

Published March 20, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Ambassador Kim Young-mok 

Jeju Island is one of Korea’s most attractive tourist destinations for Koreans and foreign visitors. Its reputation of unique beauty and majesty has been widely known for a long time.

Indeed, Jeju is a special place. Its distinct traditions, diverse flora, magnificent landscapes and what could only be described as playful remnants of nature’s most creative formation are harmoniously mixed to become home to nine of the world’s 66 UNESCO Global Geoparks. Even Mr. Robert Redford, not so long ago, rightfully endorsed Jeju Island’s allure as an “impeccable treasure on this planet.”

Now, Jeju Island is about to accommodate a new, modern naval base at one of its southern tips, as do Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, San Diego in California and Apra Harbor in Guam.

Yet, there are protests and campaigns trying to stop this project of national importance.

Of course, some points are understandable. Environmental concerns are valid, particularly on how the naval base affects the island’s surrounding ecosystem both land and underwater. In order to minimize the negative effects, the Korean government has undertaken extensive precautionary and preventative measures during both phases of construction and maintenance of the base. The Korean government is expected to cooperate closely with UNESCO to preserve Jeju Island’s designated Biosphere Reserves, such as protection of Beomseom, which is located 1.7 kilometers (or 1.06 miles) off of the construction site.

Furthermore, the government plans to make the naval base an eco-friendly, multipurpose, and a scenic port including green-belt zones surrounding the area. The new ports are also designed to promote tourism, such as including sizable docks accessible for cruise ships and other vessels for maritime leisure.

Another issue raised was the question of the government’s due process in approving and constructing the base. Korea is no longer a country where individual rights are readily abrogated and objections censored. This project has dutifully followed the due process of the law, accommodated a myriad of views and sought to reach a broad consensus based on understandings of disparate views.

Certainly in carrying out the plans for the new naval base, the Korean government has been working for more than a decade to local concerns by conducting numerous polls and holding town hall meetings to address a delicate balance of safeguarding national security, protecting the environment, and creating business opportunities and new jobs on Jeju Island.

As you may know, Korea is a nation of thriving industry and trade. It is also one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. In fact, Korea has become a society, of which public debates and the reconciliation process make any national level decision protracted. More importantly, Korea has been at the forefront of advancing environmental protection by leading the global efforts on climate change. The Korea based Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) was founded in June 2010 to promote green economic growth, which has become the underlying issue of United Nations Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) Green Economy Report launched in 2011. Other green growth initiatives by the Korean government include National Strategy for Green Growth (2009-2050) and the Five-Year Plan (2009-2013), which are recognized by OECD for its aims to “provide a comprehensive policy framework for green growth in both the short and long term.” (http://www.oecd.org/document/49/0,3746,en_2649_37465_49486129_1_1_1_37465,00.html)

However, the primary argument advanced by opponents is that the naval base is being constructed to serve the US strategy of encircling China through its Aegis anti-ballistic missile systems. They conclude that this will needlessly provoke China and spark an arms race. Moreover, some even baselessly assert that the Korean government is building this naval base due to pressures from Washington.

As a matter of fact, there has been no request made from the US to construct or exclusively use this naval base for a specific purpose. This plan is purely Korea’s own. Why would the Pentagon need Jeju to operate its Aegis-ABM, while the US navy can fully operate from bases in Okinawa and other bases in Japan or in any other parts of the Pacific?

For Korea, the most pressing need to construct this new base is that of its national security and of safeguarding its national and economic interests.

A modern naval base has been planned by the Korean government since 1993. Expansion and further modernization of the Korean navy was limited without a modern base. As the world’s 9th largest trading nation with a total annual trade volume of more than $1 trillion (and the 7th largest exporter), about 600,000 merchant ships, of which 400,000 are Korean, pass by Jeju Island each year.

Furthermore, to participate in the international efforts to fight piracy, the Korean navy has to reach out to the Indian Ocean to protect its national and international civilian ships. One resounding example took place in January last year. Code-named “Dawn of Gulf of Aden,” Korean navy commandos executed a daring rescue mission near Somalia to save 21 crew members of the hijacked freighter, Samho Jewelry, and brought captured pirates to justice.

Without adequate preparedness, particularly without the minimum requisite naval capabilities, how can Korea secure its own independence and protect its national and maritime interests?

The southern tip of Jeju Island turned out to be the most ideal place for this purpose, because it offers the right conditions for a modern port that could accommodate naval and commercial ships, which have become much larger in size. Also its ideal locale avails a balanced radius from which the navy can cover from North to South and East to West. Korea is surrounded by sea and often in dispute and conflict with neighboring countries.

As was demonstrated in 2010 by the North’s attacks on the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, and on Yeonpyeong Island, Korea faces constant threats from North Korea. In addition, Korea is surrounded by powerful maritime forces in the world. China has the second largest navy in the world. Japan’s sizable fleet has a total displacement of approximately 432,000 tons. Compared to the Korean navy’s total displacement of about 181,000 tons, the difference is significantly asymmetric. Also, there are disputes in the region over the sea territory, continental shelf and the respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Korea’s history was often marred by tragedy due to its lack of adequate defense capabilities. The country had been the victim of bitter rivalries and subjected to ambitious conquests from surrounding superpowers. Korea could not defend itself from invasions and become a battleground during many devastating wars. In 1882 China (Qing Dynasty) sent nearly 5,000 troops from the sea and stationed them in Korea for a decade until Japan landed and defeated the Chinese. Korea lost its sovereignty after the Japanese destroyed the Russian armada nearby Jeju Island in 1904. Korea cannot repeat this bitter part of history.

So, who should be the ones to care when Korea’s territorial integrity and its national sovereignty are threatened? First and foremost, it should be Koreans. With that said, what do the opponents protests serve?

Korea cannot revert to the days of humiliation and subjugation. The Republic of Korea has built itself from the colonial hardships and ashes of war. Now, it is one of the leading economic and technological powers in the world. And at the same time, Korea is hailed as one of the most exemplary cases of developing a mature democracy, placing human values upfront at its goal.

Yes, Jeju Island is a paradise of peace; yet, it is not a Tahiti in the Pacific.

Ambassador Kim Young-mok is the Consul General for Government of Korea in New York City. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Korea.net photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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