IF YOU HAVE ever been to Jeju, you will understand why it is called a paradise. Lying in the waters south of the Korean mainland, this volcanic island is stunningly beautiful, from its clean mountain streams to its placid coral reefs. Jeju’s legendary female deep-sea divers harvest clams, abalone, and seaweed, relying on lung power alone. The island is also a spiritual place, said to be the body of Korea’s creation goddess, Mago. Jeju has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a World Biosphere Reserve.
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Since January 2011, it’s also been the site where a $970 million naval base is being constructed by the South Korean government, with the help of giant construction corporations such as Samsung. The base, located in the small farming and fishing village of Gangjeong, will occupy a unique three-quarter-mile stretch of coastal wetland, threatening an ecological system that harbors several endangered species. The naval base construction also contributes to increasing military tensions in Asia, raising the risk of a devastating war in the region. Today, islanders, religious leaders, and peace activists are calling attention to dangers caused by joint U.S.-South Korean militarization.
The base is slated to be home to 20 warships, including submarines, aircraft carriers, and destroyers, several of them equipped with missile defense technology with the stated goal of protecting South Korea’s sea lanes and shielding against attack from North Korea. Civilian cruise liners will also be able to dock, according to the government. South Korean naval official Ku Okhyoe told a press conference last fall that U.S. military ships will be allowed to dock at the base only temporarily; Ku insisted, “The base is not intended for a certain country.”
But as China’s influence grows, the U.S. is “rebalancing” its foreign policy toward containing that influence. As the U.S. enhances military facilities in South and East Asia, the distinction between “permanent” and “temporary” U.S. military presence is increasingly obscure: The New York Times reports that, at one military base in Mindanao in the Philippines, “several hundred members of the U.S. military have been serving on a rotating basis—for nearly a decade.”
Nonviolent protest to stop the Jeju base has drawn nationwide and international supporters, in addition to strong local opposition. Many religious leaders have actively joined the protest. Every day in Gangjeong village, Catholic priests celebrate morning Mass, Protestant pastors lead afternoon prayer, and Buddhist monks offer evening dharma talks.
The police have suppressed nonviolent resistance and even religious meetings. More than three dozen protesters—including activists, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests and nuns, filmmakers, and bloggers—have been arrested or detained for nonviolent civil disobedience near the construction site of the base. A tent set up by 80 Catholic priests and nuns for Mass was demolished. In February, Father Bartholomew Mun Jung-hyun, a Jesuit leader of the anti-base movement, was sentenced by the Jeju District Court to an eight-month suspended prison sentence for his protest activities.
On May 14, the construction companies announced that they have blasted out 90 percent of the new base’s rock foundations on the coastline. However, protesters and religious leaders say that they will never give up, and that the protest is a struggle for peace and justice and a fight against military power, potential war, and a privileged few.
“We will continue the protest,” says Conventual Franciscan Friar Suh Yoeng-Soep, “because we believe that to protect peace and life is not a matter of ideology. It’s the call of the gospel against human power destroying the kingdom of God.”
Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, visit www.savejejuisland.org.