[Viewpoint] Protecting peace, not just wishing for it

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[Viewpoint] Protecting peace, not just wishing for it

A little-known remnant from the Japanese colonial period can be found in Gama Oreum in southwest Jeju. It is an extensive underground bunker built by the Imperial Japanese Army toward the end of the Pacific War. The Japanese pressed Jeju Island residents into forced labor to dig a mile-long underground passage. Its presence was known only to some natives of Jeju Island until a decade ago.

Lee Yeong-geun, 58, has devoted his time, energy and fortune into excavating the site and turning it into a museum. The director of the War History and Peace Museum said that his father had been forced into labor to build the tunnel. He says he began the project under the belief that history - no matter how painful - should not be forgotten.

Jeju Island has many tragic moments in history. It was a notable destination of exile during the Joseon Dynasty, and the island had a series of governors who exploited the locals. Therefore, the people of Jeju have long had deep antagonism against people from the mainland. It reached a peak after the April 3rd incident, when tens of thousands of Jeju residents were killed after liberation.

A government investigation and belated apology came only three years ago. The painful history has taken deep root in the subconscious of Jeju residents. Regardless of their mental wounds, the beautiful island of Jeju is the nation’s most celebrated tourist destination. Many people consider it the most desirable destination for honeymoons. The Olle trails on Jeju are popular not only among Koreans but also foreign tourists, such as the Japanese.

The country is divided over the plan to build a naval base on Jeju. The construction site is on the coast of Gangjeong Village, east of Jungmun District, one of the most popular tourist sites on the island. The location of the naval base was chosen after a complicated process. Local residents were surveyed, and the water depth was measured.

In addition to the environmental evaluation, a referendum was held on Governor Kim Tae-hwan, who had agreed to the construction of the base. The land purchase and compensation for fishing rights have been completed, and some construction is in progress. Of the total budget of 980 billion won ($901 million), 140 billion won has already been invested.

But the construction of the base is suspended at the moment. The movement opposing the base was initially started by some Gangjeong residents. Now the movement has gained momentum: civic groups, some Catholic organizations and opposition politicians have joined the bandwagon.

Dozens of protestors have taken up position on the road to the construction site, preventing construction vehicles and workers from approaching the site. Today, Gangjeong Village is divided among those who support the construction and those who oppose the base. The two groups even use different convenient stores now to avoid each other.

Those who protest the construction of the naval base argue that Jeju is an island of peace and that the base does not suit its reputation. They also claim that the base is being constructed as part of the United States’ missile defense network against China and therefore would provoke China.

However, their claims lack convincing grounds. There are many examples in other countries that historical military ports become popular tourist sites. Also, the naval base is not very extensive, and the possibility of American military using the base is extremely slim.

Rather than legitimate reasons, opponents of the base are driven more by the culture of aggressive struggle, which has become a chronic illness in our nation’s politics. Protestors have even used the provocative argument that the national government is about to use police forces to suppress the people of Jeju, which is the site of the tragic April 3rd incident.

Regarding the naval base project, Lee Yeong-geun, the museum director and native of Jeju Island, simply said, “Peace is merely wishful thinking if you can’t protect it.” The underground fortress from the Japanese colonial period restored by Lee tells us all that Jeju Island cannot remain in peace without making efforts to protect itself, just like any other place. Moreover, the naval base on Jeju Island will be the spearhead of the country’s defense line, protecting the interests of the Republic of Korea, which has the highest dependency on trade in the world.

*The writer is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kang Young-jin
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