[Viewpoint] Stake a claim to our own sea

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[Viewpoint] Stake a claim to our own sea

On April 15, 1886, a commander of a British naval fleet at the Port of Nagasaki of Japan telegraphed Admiralty headquarters to report that three of his ships, HMS Agamemnon, HMS Pegasus, and HMS Firebrand, left Nagasaki for Port Hamilton. He added that Russian warships were yet to be seen.

Port Hamilton, which served as an Asian gateway among Western imperialists in the Asiatic expansions, referred to the group of small islands in the Jeju Strait off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula now called Geomun Island in Korean. The British were first to discover the islands in 1845, and since then, the rocky archipelago gained strategic importance and triggered tension between the Russians and English without any awareness of the Joseon Dynasty.

British newspapers reported on the Royal Naval arrival and occupation of the southern islands, some referring to them as Quelpart, or Jeju Island, as christened by Dutch trader Hendrick Hamel who became the first Western sailor to arrive on the ancient Joseon land after being shipwrecked during his journey to Nagasaki in the 17th century. In the eyes of Europeans, the southern islands off the peninsula on the Far East map would have looked more or less the same.

As American Admiral Robert Shufeldt had then compared Geomun Island to Gibraltar, the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance to the Mediterranean, Geomun Island served an important strategic purpose of deterring a Russian advance to East Asia after its occupation of Siberia. Commanders of the so-called Western Great Powers after hearing the Port Hamilton Incident called it an extraordinary military move of choking the dog (Russians) to drop the bone in its mouth. When the British flag was raised on the island’s hilltop, other Western powers raised complaints over British occupation of the harbor at the Korean Strait and sent the Joseon government scurrying off to China to seek help.

The rivalry to dominate the Yellow Sea continues today even after more than a century since the era of imperialism. The Pacific Fleet of the Russian Navy is stationed at Vladivostok, the Japanese harbor naval force in Sasebo, Nagasaki, and seven American fleets occupy the naval base in Yokosuka of Japan. China, as if to compensate for its humiliating defeat in the 19th century, has built an aircraft carrier facing south at its Dalian port.

The southern coast and sea of Korea remains uninhabited by naval forces and vulnerable to foreign forces. The ports in Jinhae and Busan on the East Sea are too small to harbor warships, and larger ones in Pyeongtaek and Moko also do not provide easy access to Aegis cruisers due to a high tidal gap.

The major commissioned ships like the Sejong the Great destroyer and the Dokdo amphibious warfare ship wander the sea because they do not have home harbors. If any surprises occur on the Korean Strait where 80 percent of freight trade and most maritime commerce between Japan and China pass through, it would take nearly 10 hours for Korea’s main Dokdo fleet to arrive on the scene from Busan.

If we were to seek naval advice from our famed hero Adm. Yi Sun-sin, he would silently point his sword to one direction. In the days of turtle ships, Yeosu and Tongyeong served their logistical purpose, but in today’s world of the integrated naval weapons system of the Aegis, the southern tip of Seoguipo on Jeju Island would be the best choice as agreed upon by the naval powers in the 19th century.

Gangjeong Village sits 20 kilometers (12 miles) off Seoguipo surrounded by scenic volcanic rocks. The southernmost end of the “Island of Peace” still bears the tragic scars of the April 3 massacre that caused 13,000 deaths among Jeju residents. As the late President Roh Moo-hyun has pointed out, it can provide an important logistical service to balance naval powers.

The coastal rocks at Gangjeong are being blasted amidst wailing protesters. The peaceful village would be disrupted by military trucks and iron wires. Jeju’s natural and archeological legacies could be spoiled.

But we are not secure enough to throw a blind eye to the fact that Jeju poses as the central sea post for the world’s major naval powers in the Far East as the ancient Joseon royal court has idly done. We should have studied more thoroughly whether the islanders, religious leaders and environmentalists could accommodate the island’s new status as naval host in the context of 21st century values.

Despite the clamorous arguments over the last five years, we have failed to reach a consensus and the naval base project in Jeju is on the brink of a breakdown. If authorities had been more considerate to villagers and proposed to set up museums and recreational facilities to underscore tourist attractions as well as military service, they may not have been so resistant. The British left Geomun Island after the Russians retreated with a promise to forego its Asiatic campaign two years after their occupation. The British flag was taken down with no help from Joseon authorities. It is time we take the initiative to create a port with our national flag and defend our sea.

* The author is a professor of Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun

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