The once-pristine waters off Gangjeong Village, on the southern side of South Korea’s Jeju Island, used to be the place where the island’s Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins swam closest to shore. They were once a common sight, frolicking in the waters between the shore and the beautiful Tiger Island, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But no longer. Since construction began on an U.S. Navy base on the shores of the village, the estimated 114 dolphins remaining in this distinct, isolated and endangered population are seen no more in Gangjeong’s waters.
And no wonder. The single volcanic rock that stretched three quarters of a mile along the shore, known as Gureombi, and held sacred by villagers, who have for ages prayed and performed ceremonies there, has literally been blasted apart with explosives and covered over with concrete. Base construction, now nearly complete, also threatens a number of other endangered species, has destroyed fish habitat and severely damaged the soft coral reefs around the base site, as these were dredged to make possible passage of the vessels of war.
The Navy base is part of Obama’s “Asian Pivot,” in which 60 percent of U.S. forces are shifted to the Asia-Pacific to “control” China. It will be used to port Navy submarines, aircraft carriers and Aegis destroyers (many built here in Bath) that are a key component of the so-called missile defense system, as well as South Korean destroyers also connected to that system.
The base is just 300 miles from China. Its placement is clearly provocative, and it’s understandable why that nation may feel threatened by its presence. Can you imagine China building a base 300 miles from our shores? Would the U.S. government tolerate such a move?
It makes the South Korean government’s official designation of Jeju Island as being an “Island of Peace” rather ironic, to say the least.
The destruction occurring due to this Navy base is not only environmental. It is also wreaking havoc on the social fabric of the village and their way of life: fishing and farming. The pollution generated by the base construction has diminished fishing productivity, and a great deal of their farmland has been taken to make way for the base, base housing and base roads. It’s a village of fewer than 2,000 people, but some 3,000 military service members will soon be housed there as well. And with the base will come the other things that military bases bring — among them, drugs, prostitution and rapes.
How did all this come about?
The process was anything but democratic. The first two villages that were proposed by the South Korean Navy as sites for the base fiercely objected to the plan. So, in 2007, the South Korean Navy used stealth and bribery to gain “approval” for the base in a secretive meeting of 87 of the villagers from Gangjeong Village. When the rest of the village found out about this highly improper vote, a referendum was held, with 94 percent of the eligible voters voting against the base.
The village’s resistance to the base did not end with that vote. That was just the beginning. Continuing on now over eight years, until this day, it has been a constant, heroic struggle, taking many forms, from rallies and peace walks to lawsuits and hunger strikes. There have been numerous sit-ins, kayak blockades and daily blockades of construction machinery and vehicles, all done nonviolently.
That is more than can be said of the government’s response; many villagers, as well as supporters from the mainland and other countries, have been injured by police and contractors working for the government for peacefully protesting the base. There have been more than 700 arrests, many have been fined and many have gone to prison. What was their crime? These people are simply trying to protect their once-beautiful coast, their village and their way of life. They are trying, with everything they have, to make Jeju a genuine island of peace.
What will become of Gangjeong’s people should the base be completed? Will we see the last of Jeju’s dolphins disappear forever, following Navy sonar exercises? And what are our prospects for peace when our government only prepares for more wars?
Russell Wray of Hancock volunteers with Citizens Opposing Active Sonar Threats (COAST). In December, he was part of a delegation of members of Veterans For Peace who traveled to Jeju and Okinawa to support people resisting new military bases. Wray and two other Maine VFP members will speak about their journey to Jeju and Okinawa at the Bay School in Blue Hill at 7 p.m. Feb. 4.