GANGJEONG, Jeju Island, South Korea, January 18, 2010 (ENS) – Once it was known as an eco-paradise, a resort island of peace, but today hundreds of police clashed with villagers protesting construction of a Korean naval base on Jeju Island.
The base is planned for the use of U.S. and South Korean Aegis destroyers outfitted with missile defense systems that the demonstrators say will be used to surround China’s coast, potentially making their once peaceful island a target if hostilities break out.
The protesters appeared at a ceremony marking the start of construction of the base that they fear will destroy coral reefs and lava tube caves listed as World Heritage environmental sites by the United Nations.
Police broke up the demonstration and arrested 47 people, including two Catholic fathers and the mayor of Gangjeong, Kang Dong-Kyun.
An eyewitness reports, “The village people had been barricading the site with cars since the cranes contracted by the navy first entered the site on January 6. About 30 village people succeeded to block it at the time.”
The activists had climbed construction cranes in protest but were dragged off the big machines today by police.
“It is known that the police harshly acted today, against the people who are mostly in their old ages. The village people laid their bodies on the ground and cried to rather kill all of them. They pushed the old women and men. The police did not even mind womens underwears were taken off during the body struggles,” reports the eyewitness who prefers not to be named.
A 70-year-old man was wounded in the struggle. “He hit his head on the stone when he was pushed by a policeman. He was protesting against the police who was pushing an old woman,” the eyewitness reports. He was taken to hospital, treated and released. Police now have released all but 11 of those arrested.
About 40 people, including 20 villagers and 20 Jeju activists are holding a candlelight vigil overnight in the contested area. Police are expected to return Tuesday morning.
All the car barricades placed by the village people have been removed and a wire fence has been set up. The contracted cranes have begun the basic construction process.
The villagers say they will continue the struggle on Tuesday.
“My heart is broken. We are helpless and they are forcefully driving the naval base,” villager Hong Keun-Pyo told Canadian anti-base activist Bruce Gagnon by phone today. “The Jeju is the Island of the Peace. There should be absolutely no war base. We need the support by all Koreans and all international peace-loving people. We are just the innocent farmers without much knowledge. We need your help.”
Jeju-do is the only special autonomous province of South Korea and is the country’s largest island. Jeju lies in the Korea Strait, off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.
The area the base is being constructed is near the Gangjeong stream, site of the cleanest water on Jeju island, where water is scarce.
In its record of inscription on the World Heritage List in 2007, UNESCO wrote, “Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes together comprise three sites that make up 18,846 hectares. It includes Geomunoreum, regarded as the finest lava tube system of caves anywhere, with its multicoloured carbonate roofs and floors, and dark-coloured lava walls; the fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, rising out of the ocean, a dramatic landscape; and Mount Halla, the highest in Korea, with its waterfalls, multi-shaped rock formations, and lake-filled crater.”
“The site, of outstanding aesthetic beauty, also bears testimony to the history of the planet, its features and processes,” UNESCO wrote.
The South Korean government and Navy have pledged to build a modern naval base that would also be used as a luxury commercial dock as well as an environmentally-friendly tourist spot with a park.
The Jeju base will be long enough to accommodate 20 warships and two large cruise liners, according to South Korean Navy officials. Construction is expected to be complete by 2014.
“We’re sure that the Jeju base will have many positive effects on the island in terms of job creation, tourism, commercial interests and others,” a South Korean Navy official on Jeju told the “Korea Times” on condition of anonymity. “In short, the base will not only serve as a military dock but also an eco-friendly tourism hub.”