Image: Taken by the CSPS-Korea Student Fellows, the photo presents several posters protesting against the Military-Civilian Port Complex. The center poster reads, “Peace Cannot be Achieved with Arms” (St. Francis Peace Center Foundation).
National Security Dilemma: Controversies Surrounding Jeju Naval Base
Jeju Island is located in the Republic of Korea’s southernmost part and is widely known for its decades-long pursuit of peace and sustainable development. A lesser-known fact is that Jeju Island is also host to one of the most significant naval bases in South Korea. Located in the south of Jeju in Gangjeong Village, the Military-Civilian Port Complex’s strategic importance is ambiguous. It serves as an effective deterrent against economic and military threats from China, Japan, and North Korea. Yet, a significant portion of Gangjeong villagers opposed the base’s construction, participating in a decade-long protest outside of the base. The main concern against the base stems from dubious practices perpetrated by the South Korean government.
Civilian Opposition towards the Naval Base
While the naval base on Jeju Island is located in a strategically vital geographic area, expanding the Korean navy’s operational range; yet the presence of the base in the Gangjeong Village causes considerable distress among the Jeju Island inhabitants. Major civilian groups remind the Korean government that Jeju was declared the Island of World Peace, reflecting its people’s Sammu spirit. Sammu spirit consists of Sam, which means three, and Mu, indicating the absence. Hence, when put into the context of Jeju’s traditional notion that there are “no thieves, no gates and no beggars on Jeju,” representing harmony and stability. Still, the locals argue that the base’s presence contradicts the Sammu spirit and disrupts the area’s balance.
The lack of democratic transparency when the Gangjeong Village was chosen as the host for the naval base is one of the main contention points between the locals and the Blue House. The villagers cite the case in April 2007, when the vote to establish a base next to Gangjeong Village occurred. The original vote, conducted by the Korean government and Gangjeong Village authorities, showed that an overwhelming majority voted in favor of the base, even though only 87 of 1,900 eligible voters casted their votes. When the Gangjeong villagers independently organized a re-vote, 680 out of 1,900 villagers voted against the base construction, which seemingly contradicts its commitment towards democracy, as the government neglected to organize proper referendum regarding the base construction.
Complicated Geopolitics of East Asia
The point made by the activists does have a viable argument. Yet, from the Blue House viewpoint, removing the base would only jeopardize the already complicated geopolitical situation in the region.
The issue around Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) is one of the main points of contention in East Asia, as each nation claims its rights over the maritime resources of the Yellow Sea. In such an environment, South Korea’s position in the region is shaky, as the Korean navy cannot operate its EEZ. Hence, a naval base in the Southernmost part of Korea is an essential asset to South Korean security policy. With 99% of Korean imports and exports coming from maritime trade, South Korean economic security is contingent upon responding promptly to threats from other East Asian nations.
President Moon also recognizes the base’s strategic importance, especially over the Scotra Rock dispute with China, which China claims as part of its EEZ. The base’s geographical location allows the Korean navy to reach Scotra Rock in just eight hours, compared to the average 14 hours it would take for Chinese vessels to get the reef. Also admitting Chinese and North Korean Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) threat, the ROK navy is rapidly constructing additional Sejong-Class destroyers that are equipped with Aegis-class anti-missile systems and capable of intercepting ICBMs. Considering that the base can host multiple Sejong-Class destroyers, submarines, and even helicopter carriers, ROK’s ability to project defend its maritime interests rise exponentially, limiting China’s and North Korea’s ability to warmonger.
Despite severe opposition from the locals, the Jeju Military-Civilian Port Complex’s existence is a strategic necessity that the South Korean government does not have the luxury to move or close. The geopolitical landscape of the region and constant threats from China and North Korea put South Korea in a position in which it must assert its control over maritime borders.
With increased uncertainty over the US-ROK alliance’s fate, South Korea must pursue a more independent maritime policy, and the Jeju Naval Base is a vital steppingstone towards that. The President-Elect Joe Biden underscored the importance of the alliance with South Korea. Yet, with a divided American public and uncountable COVID-19 deaths in the States, it is highly questionable whether the United States will fully support Korea in case of continued aggression from China.
Likewise, with a bit more than a year left before the next Presidential Elections in 2022, the Korean political landscape is undoubtedly liable to change. Still, the Jeju Naval is unlikely to be moved or closed in the near future.
Ilya Kim is an ethnically-Korean student from Russia, currently majoring in Global Affairs with a Global Governance concentration at George Mason University Korea campus. Now, he is beginning his term as a research fellow at the Center for Security and Policy Studies – Korea. His research interests lay in North Korean development and Russo-East Asian relations beyond the Soviet Union era.