Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

The Battle for Jeju Island: How the Arms Race is Threatening a Korean Paradise

BY ROBERT REDFORD

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Imagine dropping fifty-seven cement caissons, each one the size of a four-story house, on miles of beach and soft coral reefs. It would destroy the marine ecosystem. Our imperfect knowledge already tells us that at least nine endangered species would be wiped out, and no one knows or perhaps can know the chain reaction.

That’s what is about to happen on the pristine coastline of Jeju Island, a culturally and ecologically unique land off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. It seems motivated by the United States’ urge to encircle China with its Aegis anti-ballistic system — something China has called a dangerous provocation — and by the South Korean navy’s construction of a massive naval base for aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers to carry Aegis

If you’re wondering why this isn’t better known, it’s certainly not the fault of Jeju villagers. Those tangerine farmers and fishing families have been camping out on the endangered coast for five years, putting their lives on the line to protect it. They include the legendary women sea divers of Jeju who harvest abalone on lungpower alone, knowing that oxygen tanks could cause them to over-harvest.

But Jeju’s distance from the mainland has combined with military secrecy and misleading official reports to preserve the global ignorance locals have come to refer to as “the Jeju bubble.” As a result, hundreds of acres of fertile farmland have already been bulldozed to prepare for concrete, and caissons would extend this dead zone into the sea.

I learned about this last summer when I read an Op Ed in The New York Times called, “The Arms Race Intrudes on Paradise” by Gloria Steinem. As she wrote:

There are some actions on which those of us alive today will be judged in centuries to come. The only question will be: What did we know and when did we know it?

I think one judge-worthy action may be what you and I do about the militarization of Jeju Island in service of the arms race.

Jeju isn’t just any island. It has just been selected as one of the “Seven Wonders of Nature” for its breathtaking beauty, unique traditions and sacred groves. Of the world’s 66 UNESCO Global Geoparks, nine are on Jeju Island. It is also culturally unique with a tradition of balance between people and nature, women and men, that causes it to be called Women’s Island. It is also known as Peace Island.

Now, the proposed base is near a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, which is also a nationally designed environmental protection area. Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphins spawn there because of the rich biodiversity of the coast. The South Korean navy claims endangered species could be relocated and the coral beds reconstituted; something both scientists and villagers reject as absurd. The massive cement structures would not only crush all marine life, but block out sunlight critical to other ocean-based species, and the frequency signals from submarines would bring painful deaths to whales. It has also been a fact of life surrounding military bases that human cancer rates, violence and sexual violence have increased.

I am moved and impressed that the residents near the coastline have been waging a fierce nonviolent struggle to stop the base. They’ve used their bodies to block bulldozers and cement trucks, sacrificed their personal freedom, been beaten and imprisoned, and paid heavy fines for “obstructing” the business of the navy and such construction companies as Samsung and Daelim — all to protect their homeland and an irreplaceable treasure on this planet Earth. Though 94 percent of the villagers voted against the base, the South Korean government is proceeding with construction. It is also bound by treaty to let the U.S. military use all its bases.

I think the least that environmentalists, peace activists and supporters of democracy can do is express our outrage. You can take action now by visiting the Save Jeju Island Campaign website.  As individuals, tourists, professionals and citizens, you may have added access to pressure points that only you know. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature will be holding its World Conservation Congress on Jeju Island from September 6 to 15, 2012; something that should be used as leverage.

Secrecy and hypocrisy have let this military base get under way. Facts and activism can stop it before it’s too late.

For more information and to get involved go to: SaveJejuIsland.org

Top photo: Matthew Hoey of SaveJeJuIsland.org sits at Guroumbi Rock, a spiritual site that is now being destroyed, Credit: Rain Jung. Second: Local activists guard the Guroumbi Rock site. Third: Street art. Bottom: Local activist Sung-Hee Choi puts her body in front of a bulldozer. Credit: SaveJejuIsland.org

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