By Matthew Hoey
With parliamentary and presidential elections coming up in 2012, South Korea is in the midst of its very first social-network-driven political season on the world’s stage. After nearly half a decade of the conservative policies of the Lee Myung Bak administration, Koreans seem ready to swing back to the left. The election in October of a progressive as the mayor of Seoul heralds this trend. This race also served as a beta test for an effective web-based campaign model in Korea.
A key test issue for the opposition is the naval base that the government is constructing on Jeju Island. Since 2007, residents of Jeju have been risking their lives and their freedom to prevent the construction of a naval base on what many revere as the picturesque island’s most beautiful coastline. The Jeju Island naval base issue now has the potential to become a leading political hot button topic—much more than it is now—if adopted by political candidates vying for national assembly seats. This will greatly accelerate the no-base campaign’s visibility in Korea and in the region.
If completed, the military base will be home to both U.S. and South Korean naval vessels and the sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system. The planned facility would have a capacity for 6,000 soldiers, two submarines, 20 large destroyers and two aircraft carriers – in Gangjeong Village, a farming and fishing area with a population of just 1,900 people. Many experts, such as Noam Chomsky at MIT and Wooksik Cheong in South Korea, believe that the location of the base will provide a forward operating installation in the event of a military conflict between the United States and China. The base is located just 300 miles from the Chinese mainland.
The Save Jeju Island campaign is what many international peace activists have been waiting for: an entirely winnable cause for peace with significant international implications. It’s a shot across the bow against U.S. militarization efforts in a region that Washington increasingly sees as the next front after the Middle East. The Jeju Island naval base project is not only highly symbolic but also quite dire in its potential impact on global security.
Building a Movement
The Gangjeong villagers are now into their fifth year of fighting to halt construction of the naval base, and at this point there can be no doubt that they are at their prime. The peace activists and residents are waging a 24-hour struggle for peace. Each day in Gangjeong they organize events that are worthy of international media attention. Because of the remoteness of the village as well as language and cultural barriers, however, this movement has been in a “Jeju bubble” for its first four-and-a-half years. The naval base opposition was not only virtually unknown to most of the peace and arms control communities internationally, it was unknown to most Korean people as well.
Prior to my first visit there in July when I was investigating the topic, I searched for scholars who were familiar with this struggle for peace. Colleagues of mine in the United States who are known as Korean security and nuclear experts were completely unaware of what was taking place on Jeju Island. Today that has changed, and we have through the hard work of many people around the world, and via the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island, placed the Gangjeong villagers in many international media outlets such as Al Jazeera, MSNBC, The Washington Times, and The New York Times.
After this flurry of media attention, events running in parallel in Korea were converging with the Jeju base resistance, such as the Hanjin labor uprising, which spanned months and involved thousands of Koreans from all walks of life. This movement recently ended in victory. Also the extremely passionate Korean-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA) protests were and still are underway. In the midst of this climate of political activism and what some have suggested weeks ago could be the Asian equivalent of an “Arab Spring,” a flurry of notable international visitors including Gloria Steinem descended on Gangjeong village to witness the inspiring movement. They also arrived for the Tenth United Nations-Republic of Korea Joint Conference on Disarmament and Non-proliferation.
I attended the UN conference on Jeju as a guest of the Korean Foreign Ministry. It served as an opportunity to meet with international officials and diplomats about the Jeju base issue. As soon as I entered the conference it became quite clear to me that the Korean government did not want the topic of the Jeju base to be raised. It was a very controlled environment. Koreans in attendance were for the most part very pro-base. Attendees numbered about 70 and included representatives from various embassies, NGOs, and academic institutions.
While inside I met with more than 25 attendees, including nearly every embassy official listed on the event program. Two out of three people that I spoke with had no idea that the base project even existed just a five-minute drive from the conference center. Those who did know of the base construction were very confused as to why the South Korean government was building it in the first place. They found it to be quite an absurd venture that would undermine regional stability. Many were very candid about this belief. Of course they emphasized that this was their personal opinion and not an official position. I did not speak with a single non-Korean at the event who supported the base project. This was well beyond my expectations.
Two conference attendees actually visited the base construction site. One was Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute, a highly regarded United Nations NGO. She was a key figure in the Greenham Commons anti-nuclear efforts of the early 1980s and is quite respected in diplomatic circles. She took a big risk to visit the site, joining villagers for singing, a sit-in, and even a visit to imprisoned activists. Her visit to the imprisoned Gangjeong activists may well have helped trigger their release, a testament to the power of international involvement in this peace movement. The other visitor was Matthew Bunn from Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He too had concerns about the base, namely related to how the government was simply ignoring the opinion of village residents. Whereas South Korea has historically been good about listening to its citizens’ concerns regarding nuclear power.
Popping the Bubble
International observers now watching what’s going on in Gangjeong have effectively popped the “Jeju bubble.” Solidarity rallies have recently been held in cities around the world, from Hong Kong and Tokyo to San Francisco and Washington, DC. In Seoul, more than 2,000 Catholics affiliated with the anti-base movement joined FTA protestors and 160 clergymen who broke through a police barricade in a face-off with riot police. Rallies, art exhibitions, and documentary movie screenings on the Jeju base issue are being planned. At the same time, more international activists are en route to Gangjeong.
But it will take more than international solidarity to stop the base construction. Much depends on Koreans and how they vote in the upcoming elections. The Lee Myung Bak government is not listening to the people of Korea. No riot, protest, or news article will change its stubborn ways. Change will come with a new government. In the meantime the resistance to both the FTA and the naval base has given the opposition parties important rallying points against the administration. Occupy Seoul events have also taken place in solidarity with FTA activists and in support of the Jeju resistance.
This action is being spearheaded by an increasingly active under-35 set and their use of social networking sites (SNS). Korea is experiencing a SNS revolution much like the one that swept Barak Obama into the White House and fueled uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. Although the most wired country in the world, Korea is only now fully grasping the power of Twitter..
Unfortunately the clock is ticking, and the Gangjeong naval base construction project is progressing. Lead contractors Samsung and Daelim are working overtime and have brought forward the project completion date by one year to early 2014. The international call for help has been sounded—solidarity from activists worldwide cannot arrive soon enough. If the call is answered we will have realized the first of what will be a series of victories against the military industrial complex. Saving Jeju Island will be the shot heard ‘round the world in the ongoing battle for international peace.
Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Matthew Hoey is the outreach coordinator for the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island and an international security analyst based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.