On their minds in South Korea’s island paradise: Visions of peace … and returning Chinese tourists

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

GANGJEONG, Jeju: Upstaged by THAAD ― that’s the sad fate of the gaggle of dutiful protesters who pray and hold signs aloft and march in front of the main entrance to the gleaming new Republic of Korea naval base on the southern coast of this island paradise.

They claim most of the villagers here adamantly oppose the base, which they say accommodates U.S. warships as well as those of the South Korean Navy, but you don’t sense much real anti-base zeal despite the tattered banners and posters or the fervent prayers of the faithful. No way do the protests match those of the zealots demanding removal of the counter-missile battery known as THAAD for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense from a former Lotte golf course south of Seoul.

One of the many scenic beaches on Jeju Island.

That observation would not be appreciated by the legendary Catholic priest, the Rev. Mun Jeong-Hyun, who’s been leading the protests here for the past ten years and still shows up every day for prayers and then for carving out little stone figures symbolizing the cause. “CIA, CIA,” he shouted when he saw me back here a few days ago. “CIA, get out!”

I was pretty sure Mun’s tirade was not prompted by my book, “Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent,” in which I conveyed a positive impression after interviewing him five years ago. When I said I doubted if he had read it, he got still more excited. “I do not like what you write for the Korea Times,” he yelled, “CIA, you are CIA. Get out!”

A check of my columns reminded me that more than three years ago I had quoted Mun saying “Our protest is a failure” but “I will be here until I die.” And I wound up noting there was no evidence of a U.S. base on Jeju ― a charge that has about as much truth as Mun’s CIA rant.

If the naval base is here to stay, however, that hardly means the forces for peace on the island are dormant, much less dead. My reason for being on Jeju this week was to speak at a “peace academy” ― a three-day session at Jeju University about ways to bring about peaceful resolution in a world torn by war and the threat of much more serious wars if we don’t manage to bring about reconciliation soon.

Sadly, as experts on the subject of peace were holding forth, war seemed to be moving closer in Northeast Asia. A passel of strengthened sanctions, adopted by the UN, has stiffened Kim Jong-Un’s resolve to develop a long-range missile capable of delivering a warhead to just about any U.S. target.

The inexorable progression of Kim’s nuclear dream should explain why it’s so difficult to abandon the small naval base here or the THAAD battery in the middle of the country. It’s difficult to pull back these defenses while North Korea ignores President Moon Jae-In’s overtures, including his stated desire to meet the despot of the North.

Will Jeju, in this atmosphere of impending crisis, remain an “Island of Peace”? The vision of the Peace Academy is for Jeju to go beyond its status as a “special self-governing province” and exist almost independently as a non-participant in the North-South confrontation. Toward this end, a “peace cruise” would sail from Jeju to major ports in the region, including U.S. naval bases, bringing the message of peace not only to North and South Korea but also to the great powers with a stake in Korea’s future.

If the notion of such a cruise seems a little mystical, it shows the impulse to avoid a war in which the fledgling base here might be a target. The base, with a civilian cruise terminal that’s due to be completed this year, could even provide the home port for the cruise.

For the people of this village, the prospect of Chinese tourists pouring off cruise ships has to be alluring. If only China were to lift the ban on sending tour groups to South Korea, imposed in retaliation for THAAD, the base would be a boon to the local economy.

As for the anti-base protesters, they will carry on as a sideshow led by a venerable priest ― a reminder of fears of an abstract war amid hopes for the riches of free-spending Chinese.

Donald Kirk correspondent and author of “Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent,” may be reached at [email protected].