Geopolitics

In South Korea, A Tiny Fishing Village Engulfed In A Geopolitical Maelstrom

Plans to build what would be South Korea’s largest naval base have divided public opinion and put Gangjeong, a small fishing town, at the very center of the conflict. A recent peace festival held alongside the town’s port drew 1,500 protesters – and 1,000

Demonstrators in Gangjeong protest government plans to build a naval base
Demonstrators in Gangjeong protest government plans to build a naval base
Philippe Pons

GANGJEONG – The normally peaceful fishing town of Gangjeong has become a major flashpoint in South Korea, ground zero in a nationwide debate over plans to build a controversial new naval base.

Until now, the village – home to roughly 1,000 fisherman and farmers – maintained a relatively low profile. But on Oct. 1, Gangjeong suddenly found itself in the national spotlight. Roughly 1,500 protestors gathered along the town's port to attend a peace festival organized against the base. Meeting them there were 1,000 anti-riot police officers equipped with water cannons. The disproportionate deployment of force indicates just how seriously authorities consider the military venture.

The festival was the first large demonstration since the September arrest of opposition leaders during clashes with security forces. The 50-acre perimeter of the future base is now closed off with an iron wall several meters high. Along the wall protestors have placed a successive train of opposition flags, banners and graffiti.

A nation divided

This local story – the construction of the base on the volcanic island of Jeju, a major tourism destination in South Korea – has now become a national problem. The battle has mobilized more than 100 NGOs around the country (environmentalists, pacifists, Christians, Buddhists) and another 100 outside South Korea. Five opposition parties have also lined up against the project.

"Since the 2007 decision to build a base in Gangjeong, we have fought this on our own. Now we have local and international solidarity," says Ko Kwon-Il, an opposition leader.

Conservative newspapers insist South Korea needs the base to ensure the country's security. Capable of receiving 20 warships and submarines, the planned base would be South Korea's largest.

But voices on the center-left say the project threatens to destroy the magnificent coast. They also warn that the base implies greater military cooperation with the United States, which, they fear, could provoke China, South Korea's neighbor and primary commercial partner.

The South Korean government says the naval base will serve to protect the paths of maritime shipping lanes. But it will also act as the military pressure point closest to China, allowing for a rapid firing of missiles in the event of tension between Beijing and Seoul regarding a submerged reef (the Socotra Rock) in the south of the China Sea. For the residents of Jeju, Socotra Rock is a mythical island, a refuge for sailors lost at sea. It is also located in a zone of underwater oil deposits, according to some reports.

The United States is not behind the base, but given the alliance between both countries, it would serve as an American outpost in the China Sea. "In case of tension between the United States and China, Jeju would be one of the first objectives," says Choi Sung-hui, an anti-war activist.

One banner reads, "Don't bring war here," a call that takes on a particular significance on this island. In March 1948, it was the site of massacres by pro-American militias operating under the dictatorship of the time, which killed a total of 30,000 people, or 10% of the population.

Solidarity under siege

For the residents of Jeju, strategic questions are less a factor in their opposition than protection of the environment and preservation of their way of life. "Korea is a democracy, but the government does not listen to the voice of the people. While in the past the struggles for citizens' rights were often violent, this one is pacifistic. Residents enjoy a very close relationship with the sea," says Gwon Gwi-sook, a sociologist at the University of Jeju.

Until recently, the coastline around Gangjeong enjoyed protected status. But in order for the base to be built, the Municipal Assembly repealed that status. The government says the move was legally approved. Residents are demanding a hearing.

The question of this naval base is dividing public opinion all over South Korea. And in Gangjeong, the debate has shattered the communal solidarity that was characteristic of Jeju Island. "Members of the same families are no longer speaking, and neighbors are no longer greeting each other," laments Ko Byong-hyun, the mother of one of the residents' representatives who was arrested in September and is still in custody.

Residents in favor of the base echo the government's argument: National security, job creation, investment. Kang Mi-Kyong, whose house was enveloped between the metal slabs of the construction site, represents the opposite extreme. "Don't touch a stone, not even a flower on our island," he warns. "The history of Jeju shows that we are an island of resistance."

Read the original story in French

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