[Viewpoint] Understanding the power of the seaPresidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun understood the power of the sea. The oceans were a major influence on both of their lives - Kim became a successful businessman in his 20s through his maritime company, while Roh’s career as a minister was with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. And both understood that becoming an influential nation was reliant on the ability to control the waters.
On the wall of Kim’s presidential office in the Blue House was a unique map, created by Dongwon Group Chairman Kim Jae-chul. It depicted the Korean Peninsula, upside down. The peninsula was not the edge of the Asian continent but rather the starting point to reach the sea. Under these leaders, Korea’s desire to become a strong maritime power became bolder and bolder.
Kim said a new era of Jang Bogo, a legendary maritime figure of Korea’s ancient history, should begin to revive the maritime people’s tradition, expressing his strong determination to manage the sea. Roh also urged the public to flip the world map upside down and look at the Korean Peninsula. He said the foundation for Korea’s leap was the sea.
The two presidents displayed their strong ambitions to conquer the sea and followed through with their policies. During the Kim administration, the government began efforts to build a stronger Navy, changing its image from a force defending only the close shores to a fleet capable of influence far beyond the peninsula. The project of building an advanced Aegis guided missile cruiser began during the Kim administration, with a belief that the Navy is symbolic of a country’s power.
The leadership to build the Navy for the ocean was handed down to the Roh administration. The current construction of the naval base on Jeju Island is an ambitious project of Roh’s presidency. He made the decision for the sake of the nation’s interest - along with the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. At the end of Roh’s term, the government finished gathering opinions from the public and finalized the design of the base.
The maritime science base on Ieodo was completed in 2003, at the beginning of the Roh administration. While serving as the maritime minister, Roh handled fisheries disputes with China. China persistently made its claim over Ieodo because of its strategic value. The naval base on Jeju is intended to protect Ieodo.
Gangjeong Village in Jeju, the chosen site of the naval base, has suffered from a series of protests by opposition politicians and leftist religious activists and scholars to oppose the construction.
They argued that they wanted to defend Jeju Island’s reputation as an island of peace. The protests clashed with the visions of Kim and Roh, who wanted to make Korea a strong maritime nation.
There is a black-and-white debate over the construction, seemingly a choice between peace and a stronger Navy. The former presidents had prepared for the debate in simple language: “Only when our national security is strong can we can induce North Korea to the path of reform and openness,” Kim said.
“Peace can only exist when we have the power to protect it. The Jeju naval base is necessary for national security,” Roh said.
They were clear about protecting peace by having arms.
Roh acknowledged the strategic importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance, but he instinctively did not favor it. Instead, he presented the vision of self-defense and balanced diplomacy. To this end, he increased the defense budget and began construction of the Jeju naval base. The opinions of the protesters lacked substance, and the remarks of Kim and Roh argued their ignorance away.
The legacy of Roh was damaged brutally because of betrayal and the hypocrisy of his supporters. His agonizing thoughts were ignored and distorted. When Roh committed suicide, they cried that they failed to protect him, but their political loyalty is now discarded.
Roh’s policies no longer have a place in the leftists’ platform. His legacy rather found refuge in the rightist, conservative arena. The Lee Myung-bak administration has expanded his vision, and Park Geun-hye, interim head of the ruling Saenuri Party, supports it as well.
The conservative administration and ruling party are the protectors of Roh’s legacy, and this is a tragedy of the leftists’ political history. Betrayals often produce a strange and cruel irony.
The Democratic United Party has formed an alliance with the Unified Progressive Party before the legislative elections. The UPP is a minority party with only seven lawmakers. The party was founded on the basis of struggle and noncooperation. It passionately rejected the Korea-U.S. alliance, and its ideology is based on anti-American, pro-North Korea sentiments.
The UPP has won the initiative to lead the liberal alliance, and anti-American sentiment helped to drive policy. Roh’s projects were forgotten.
The campaigns to scrap the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and the plan to build the base on Jeju are driven by anti-American sentiment. The DUP, which has 89 lawmakers, is following the lead of these extreme leftists. For victory in the legislative elections, the party gave up a moderate policy platform.
DUP Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook said she opposed the construction of the base in Jeju to protect Gureombi Rock. She also brought issues about procedural flaws.
But most of the people expressed lukewarm attitudes because they know that anti-American sentiment is the key reason behind protesting the project. The environmental slogans are just covers to disguise their anti-American agenda.
The Korea-U.S. FTA and the Korea-EU trade pact are similar, but the opposition parties did not challenge the Korea-EU FTA. They only talk about concerns regarding U.S. naval power in the waters off Jeju Island, but they remain silent about China’s claims over Ieodo.
There is a clear contrast between the seas of the two sides. Those protesting the Jeju base are in narrow waters. They are going against the current of our time.
The sea that former presidents Kim and Roh envisioned is about openness and advancement. It is a sea for the younger generations and a sea of our future.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon