[Viewpoint]The people should have a say on Jeju

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[Viewpoint]The people should have a say on Jeju

I recently came back from touring the construction site of a naval base in the fishing village of Gangjeong, Jeju Island, sponsored by the Navy. My first visit had been in the summer of last year. The last time I had been there, construction had been halted due to violent demonstrations from protesters. I couldn’t get to the construction site because it was barricaded to bar the intrusion of the demonstrators. I had to be content with a window view from the office building of the naval base project team.

But my trip this time was more successful. The banners opposing the base still hung everywhere in the village. Officers there said the rallies still take place every day at the mouth of the construction site. But I have not seen any of them during my trip. A drainage canal was set at the beach next to piles of construction equipment needed to build a breakwater and port. Hundreds of 40-ton tripods and 80-ton dimple drainage plates spread across the beach. A fork crane was busy leveling the land. Construction looked to be well under way. I wondered why the Navy invited journalists in.

But for the Navy, the background story was pretty desperate. A technical committee under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office recently released a study finding fault in the construction design that couldn’t accommodate two 150,000-ton cruise ships at the same time and demanded a re-design.

The results of the review renewed the protests to stop the naval base project altogether. But Navy officials explained that there are only seven cruise ships of that size in the world and it is highly unlikely two ships of that scale would arrive on the Korean coast at the same time. The evaluation wasn’t sufficient grounds to disrupt the project.

President Lee Myung-bak in a recent news conference criticized the opposition camp for promising to cease construction if it wins the legislative and presidential elections. The opposition was even further provoked, which is what the Navy is really worried about. The Navy fears the Jeju project - which has been debated for the last several decades before construction finally took off a year ago - could be overthrown if the opposition recoups governing power. The Navy has been helplessly caught in the middle. It was the last liberal government - when the opposition had been the ruling - that braved strong opposition and initiated the construction in the first place. The Navy has raised the strategic need and is in charge of administrating the construction. But it is not eying its own interests from the naval base. The tour ended with a dinner with officers there. A naval admiral who had been involved in the base project for a long time confessed his feelings of frustration after a few drinks. “I am a soldier. Why do I have to be dragged into a political fight?” Another admiral’s eyes watered upon hearing this. The long faces and teary confessions of veteran soldiers in their 50’s left a sinking feeling. I couldn’t find words to answer them. Personally, I cannot understand why a naval base cannot exist on Jeju, dubbed the Island of Peace. Would a military compound be that big of a threat to peace of the idyllic island? Many scenic points in the world work well with naval bases. The opponents fear Jeju could come under threat if China or other neighbors target the naval base. But it is not likely any part of the nation will be safe, even the southernmost island, if the country comes under military attack. They also argue that the Jeju base could be home to American warships and annoy China. But the naval base is for our use not the American Navy. This argument suggests our country is an American colony.

I cannot understand all the complicated underlying political calculations. But I can say this for sure. The political wrangling over the Jeju base is undermining the morale of Korean soldiers. The public audience as well as the community are getting wary and impatient. Why can’t politicians pay some attention to the people? Is that too much to ask?

by Kang Young-jin

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

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