The ministry blamed “groups outside Gangjeong”, the name of the quiet village around the base, for most of the trouble.
It’s extremely unlikely the protesters, ranging from activists handing out brochures just about all the time to several hundred massed against rows of policemen for sometime violent demonstration, will possibly deter construction. They have, however, severely impeded the project, embarrassing defense officials in a David-and-Goliath contest in which the authorities have to be careful not to risk an anti-military backlash by cracking down too hard on their foes.
Activists “have illegally occupied the construction sites and impeded the construction work”, said a lengthy declaration from the Defense Ministry, promising “to push forward with the construction of the civilian-military complex tour beauty harbor.”
“As those civic groups intervened,” said the ministry, “they have illegally occupied the construction sites and impeded the construction work, delaying construction and causing financial losses.”
By now construction is nearly one year behind schedule, and it could slip even back in the run-up to the election of a new president in December of next year — a contest in which the left-leaning opposition to the conservative President Lee Myung-bak has a fair chance of taking over from Lee, barred by the country’s constitution from seeking a second five-year term.
Beyond the tall walls shielding the site, demonstrators vow not to abandon their struggle against “desecration” of the island’s rich heritage.
“We are going to do everything we can to stop it,” said Cho Yak-gol, standing in a headquarters tent for protests that ebb and flow depending on the number of demonstrators and their willingness to battle the police. “The villagers have been fighting for four and a half years.”
The seething sentiments here contrast with the soothing beauty of an island formed by volcanic blasts from millions of year ago 80 kilometers south of the Korean Peninsula. The forces of nature have produced a verdant landscape of several hundred rocky hills, each one of them a dormant volcano, rising over vast caves and caverns and a coastline that alternates between cliffs and boulder and luxurious sand.
Several million tourists a year flock to Jeju, warm enough year-round for Korea’s only palm, banana and tangerine trees but dominated by the country’s highest peak, Mount Halla, rising 6,400 feet (1.95 kilometers) above the surrounding seas and snow-covered half the time.
Tour guides, however, seldom bring them to Gangjeong, population 1,500, a few kilometers from the island’s shining International Convention Center and luxury hotels vying for upscale tourists and conference-goers.
“The villagers have opposed the base,” said Cho Yak-gol, an activist from near Seoul. “Jeju is supposed to be an island of peace” — the name that the late president Roh Moo-hyun bequeathed the base in 2005 when he apologized for the killing of thousands of people on the island in the leftist-led revolt of 1948.
If flags of protest fly from most of the villagers’ homes, however, they appear vastly outmatched by the determined drive of the government to complete construction in two or three years as defense against a rising North Korean threat. Tension remains high as officials hark back to the North Korean shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea last November and the sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan the previous March.
Although both episodes were in the Yellow Sea far north of here, military officials warn against North Korean ships coming south and stoutly deny any notion of participating in a US-led missile defense system.
“The base is purely a defensive measure for Republic of Korea forces and territory,” said Admiral Koo. “[South] Korea faces threats from the North. It is a minimal defense for protecting maritime territory and deterring North Korean provocations. The island of peace and a military base are compatible.”
A special irony, however, is that construction of the base is going on while the island prepares to host the World Conservation Congress next September.
Kim Chong-chun, secretary general of the Korean organizing committee, exuded a sense of national pride as he talked about the congress, a quadrennial event staged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a UN observer organization.
“Jeju is a beautiful island,” he said in a briefing in the convention center. “That’s why Jeju was chosen. All here are working together on the most sensitive environmental issues. Nature is crucial.” As for the protesters’ claim that the base showed disregard for Jeju’s natural beauty, he responded, “Our forum is open to everyone” and “everyone can participate.”
Outside the base, however, the protesters talked about their ongoing campaign, not about a conservation congress that they assumed would ignore what’s happening here. “The base is not going to be helpful for the environment,” said Cho Yak-gol, planning another candlelight vigil.
Beside him, a woman handed out leaflets proclaiming, “Justice to Jeju, Peace to Gangjeong,” over the silhouette of a destroyer. Inside, the leaflet showed a species of a rare crab. “This is a treasure,” said the leaflet. “Because of the base, they will be totally destroyed.”
Admiral Koo was armed with a response to that one too. “The development objective,” he said, is to “establish an eco-friendly base” and “apply eco-friendly concept from deign to construction” complete with a “sea-water circulation pier, wave-power generation caisson etc.”
Listening to Koo, one might think the species endangered by the base never had it so good. There would be “environmental review and environmental effect evaluation”, he said, all under the aegis of a “contracted agency recommended by the opposing group.”
As for those “red-feet crab and narrow-mouthed toad,” two creatures most often cited by protesters, Koo said they will get new homes elsewhere. Could that be in the reconstituted "soft coral” that he said would enhance the waters around the base?
The impression was that of a magical underwater garden — one of the benefits of what Koo called a “multi-purpose port complex,” not just a naval base.
As for the base, he said, it would be a “pillar of peace” — the military’s response to those who say it violates Jeju’s place as “an island of peace” in a dangerous region.