[Viewpoint]Jeju must consider the nation’s needs
Building a mobile naval base on Jeju Island can protect a crucial sea transportation route and natural resources.
Huge deposits of natural resources are buried under the seabed south of Jeju Island. The government estimates that about 230 resources, including oil and natural gas, are buried in the continental shelf under the waters of the East China Sea. This is an area of great strategic interest to Korea.
Moreover, the sea lane that connects Jeju Island with the east coast of Taiwan via Ieo Island, the southernmost island of Korea, is a vital maritime transportation route used to ship 99.8 percent of Korea’s export and import commodities, including oil.
The sea area south of Jeju and the sea route are, however, also a potential place for conflict.
The sea area is in a location where the exclusive economic zones of Korea, China and Japan overlap, and is on the border of a continental shelf. The three countries have so far failed to fix their national borders in the area.
Responsibility for the defense of the sea area, where the sovereign rights of the three countries intersect, belongs to the Navy’s 3rd Fleet.
Because the naval base of the 3rd Fleet is in Busan ― about 170 km (106 miles) from Jeju ― it is difficult to carry out military operations.
That’s why the Defense Ministry and the Navy have promoted the construction of a naval base in Jeju since 1993.
Recently, the construction of such a base has become a topic of hot debate among Jeju residents.
A confrontation between residents who support the plan to build a naval base and those who oppose it became hostile on April 11. That day, Jeju Governor Kim Tae-hwan announced that the decision of whether to build the naval base would be made following an opinion survey of Jeju residents. The decision to do so was painful for the governor, who had to consider the strong opposition.
Civic groups rose up, saying, “No military facilities can be built on Jeju, the island of world peace.”
They also insisted that the survey be canceled, saying the governor decided to conduct it on his own.
The Jeju provincial government and the Navy retorted that their demands were groundless, and said that they had done their best to listen to and collect the opinions of Jeju residents.
Actually, the Navy has held hearings and explanation sessions for the residents scores of times since 2002, when the Navy fully launched the project.
In 2006, the residents of Wimiri village, Jeju Island, asked the Navy to build the naval base in their area. So, the plan met a favorable wind. The Wimiri residents wanted to benefit from the economic ripple effects from the base construction.
The Navy plans to build a base along the southern coast of Jeju, where 20 naval vessels can moor, at a cost of 800 billion won ($863 million) by 2014. It is expected that more than 6,000 jobs will be created when the construction of the base is completed.
But at a meeting Thursday with representatives of civic groups opposed to the plan, Governor Kim mumbled, “I hope the problem will be settled in May.”
Right after Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo’s visit to Jeju on April 13, there was speculation that an opinion survey would be carried out by yesterday.
But that did not happen.
The emotions of Jeju residents who oppose the construction of the naval base are understandable.
Still, the assertion by civic groups opposed to the plan that “the Jeju base will become a part of the U.S. missile defense system” does not sound persuasive.
South Korea does not participate in the U.S. missile defense plan. As a result, South Korea, unlike Japan, does not receive high-tech missile technology from the United States.
Also, the claim that “military facilities cannot be built on the island of peace” is a far cry from reality.
The island is already home to the Jeju Defense Corps, which is responsible for the island’s defense.
There is one thing that we shouldn’t overlook. A Roman strategist said, “If you want peace, then prepare for war.” Jeju is no exception.
During the period when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule, the Japanese military fortified Jeju island.
There is an underground military fortress in Hankyeong-myeon, Jeju city, and the remnant of a military airstrip near Seoguipo city. They are the evidence of the Japanese imperial army’s occupation of Jeju Island, where they trampled down innocent, peace-loving people.
Now, it is time for Governor Kim to make a decision.
As he has pointed out, rightly, the gap made confrontation and distrust will grow deeper the longer we delay.
Kim is expected to make a decision that will accommodate the interests of the whole nation as well as those of Jeju.
*The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-hee