MB pushes through Jeju naval base
The Lee Myung-bak administration yesterday gave the go-ahead to a long-stalled plan to build a naval base on Jeju Island, insisting on its completion by 2015 despite fierce protests by residents, environmentalists and a range of politicians.
The decision to push the project forward, delayed by decades of protests, came at a sensitive time, just weeks ahead of the April 11 legislative elections. The liberal opposition parties have aggressively campaigned against the base, while the ruling Saenuri Party is reluctant to promote it.
At the end of last year, the ruling and opposition parties agreed to cut 96 percent of the 132.7 billion won ($118.6 million) construction budget for this year, although the leftover budget from 2011 will allow construction to proceed.
“It is a crucial state project aimed at defending our territorial waters and creating tourist resources in Jeju to contribute to the locals’ incomes and employment,” Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik said yesterday after a policy coordination meeting. “With firm determination, the government will complete the project as scheduled by 2015 and make it a world-class port.”
Yesterday’s announcement was the clearest indication to date that the Lee administration won’t let objections to the project delay it any further. Adding fuel to the objections of some Jeju residents and environmentalists, the liberal Democratic United Party recently joined the anti-base bandwagon. In a news conference last month, President Lee chastised opposition leaders by name for having changed their minds over whether to support the plans for the base.
The plan to build the naval base on Jeju Island has a history of starts and stops. Originally planned in 1993, the project is aimed at bolstering protection of the southern sea routes used to move 99.8 percent of the country’s maritime trade.
The plan was suspended for years due to residents’ protests, but the Roh Moo-hyun administration revived it in 2007. In May 2007, Gangjeong Village of Jeju was chosen as the site based on opinion polls, but its residents objected.
In September 2008, the Lee administration announced a sweetener to overcome residents’ opposition. It said it would also build a port capable of hosting a 150,000-ton cruise ship, adding a civilian dimension to the military plan.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the purchase of the site and an environmental survey have been done since then. Ground-breaking work took place in January 2011, and 17 percent of the total budget of 977.6 billion won has been spent so far.
The government said that main construction work will begin as soon as possible. “We will accept the constructive opinions of the locals as much as possible,” said Yim Jong-yong, minister of the Prime Minister’s Office. “But any illegal actions to obstruct construction will be sternly countered by bringing civil and criminal suits.”
In addition to the construction plan, the government approved a 1.771 trillion won plan to develop the nearby areas by 2021. The central government will provide 578.7 billion won for this program. Initially, the Jeju Provincial Government asked for 996.2 billion won from the central government money for development to entice the cruise ship industry and create tourist attractions.
The government refuted the Jeju Provincial Government’s position that the current design of the base won’t allow the entry and departure of a 150,000-ton cruise ship.
A recent simulation by Korea Maritime University has proven otherwise, the government said, adding that modifications, including route changes, will be made to improve safety and efficiency.
The Lee administration’s announcement was quickly condemned and contested. The Jeju Provincial Government and the Jeju Provincial Council said Tuesday they won’t accept the simulation outcome and demanded that a more transparent survey be conducted by a team of experts recommended by both the Navy and the province.
Environmental activists and the residents’ association of Gangjeong Village reacted with fury. They said the government had decided to “make fools of” the residents by ignoring serious faults in the construction plan.
The opposition Democratic United Party also demanded that the Lee administration reconsider its decision, claiming that police crackdowns on protesters have intensified since Lee’s press conference last month, and condemning his “high-handed” decision to push forward the construction.
“Gangjeong Village is becoming the source of a national conflict,” said Representative Kim Yoo-jung, a spokeswoman of the party. “The people are sick and tired of seeing the Lee administration’s bulldozer-style implementations after four years.”
Kim said police arrested 20 protesters last weekend, including some foreign activists, in addition to the arrest of 60 protesters in February, and demanded Lee stop violating protestors’ human rights.
By Ser Myo-ja [email@example.com]