Is Pacifism Enough? – Nonviolent Protest and the Naval Base on Jeju Island

Summer 2011 before destruction of Gurumbi Rock

by SeongHan Kim

There is a small village call Gangjeong on South Korea’s Jeju Island. Jeju Island is the largest island of Korea. The location of the island is in the middle of China and Japan. Every year more than ten million tourists visit this beautiful island. Gangjeong Village and the surrounding area once protected a nature reserve comprising 10% of Jeju Island. In other words, this village and the surrounding area were the most beautiful part of Jeju Island.

However, over the past seven years, this small fishing and farming village has been struggling against the construction of a naval base. It is a stunning fact that there has been over 3,000 days of concurrent nonviolent protests in this small village.

If you visit Gangjeong Village today, you will see the monstrous construction site beyond a huge fence. However, you will also find ‘hundred times bow of life and peace’ every morning, human chains, and a daily ‘street mass’ by Catholic priests and nuns. Although many farmers have lost their inherited land, and many fishers and divers have lost their fishing ground, the strong will for peace in this small village has never faltered.

From the very beginning of the Jeju naval base construction, there were many deceptions by the navy and the government. Although 94% of Gangjeong villagers voted against the construction of the naval base on July 2007, the government and the large companies of Samsung and Daelin bidding to build the base ignored their vote.

The cost of the protest against the naval base construction has been significant. Over 700 villagers and activists have been hauled to jail by the police. Of those, 589 have been prosecuted and 39 people were jailed for 6 months to a year. The total amount of fines for everyone is close to 400 million US dollars.

The naval base is not only destroying a beautiful part of nature, but it is also destroying the villagers’ life as well. The whole community has been suffering and is being torn apart by the disruption to community living, harsh policing, and the daily destruction of their land.

One issue is that building the base makes no strategic sense militarily and may increase the tension between North and South Korea. From the South Korean perspective, there is no sound reason to a build naval base on the southern tip of Jeju Island which is the most distant location from North Korea. Besides, there are already five naval bases on the mainland of South Korea.

The Korean military and government have continued to claim that this naval base will serve the Korean navy. However, under the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) between South Korea and U.S., the vessels and aircraft of U.S. military could freely access to Korean ports without any charge. Thus, there has been great concern regard this naval base, because the strategic location of Jeju Island is crucial in the geopolitics. For instance, during World War II, Imperial Japan described Jeju Island as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

On August 5th , four days after the ‘Gangjeong Life and Peace Grand March’ (a yearly peace march around Jeju Island), and just two days after Gangjeong villagers’ 3,000 days of nonviolent protest, an interesting article appeared in the local press.

“SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) – The United States Navy wants to send its ships to South Korea’s naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju once constructed for navigation and training purposes, the outgoing head of the U.S. naval forces stationed here said Wednesday.”

Rear Adm. Lisa Franchetti said, “The U.S. Navy 7th Fleet really likes to send ships to port visit here in South Korea” and “Any port that we are able to bring our ships to, we will take advantage of that for great (navigation) liberty and great training” in a group interview following a change of command ceremony. This is the first public speech by high ranking U.S. officer who has expressed genuine interest regarding building a naval base in Jeju Island. The Jeju naval base will be capable of accommodating 20 combat ships including aircraft carriers and atomic submarines. So who really wants to this naval base? When the naval base is completed, it will serve not only the Korean navy, but the US navy as well.

The story of Gangjeong village is not a single story. It is a part of larger narrative that we have not paid attention to before. The story of Gangjeong is identical to the story of Okinawa. The destruction of Gangjeong Village and Gurumbi (a huge piece of volcanic lava rock almost 1,000 meters long and 500 meters wide) is similar to the Chagossians’ experience with Diego Garcia. The United States of America runs over 1,000 military bases outside U.S. territory. The destruction of Gangjeong is part of this globalized militarization.

The story of Gangjeong also challenges our conviction to peace in this complex global context. Gangjeong is small village, but their witness for peace will never cease. What can we learn from their nonviolent protest? How can we join in the struggle with our sisters and brothers on Jeju Island?

SeongHan Kim is working on a PhD in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. His research interests lie at the intersection of missiology and peace studies.

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