SEOUL — South Korean officials said Wednesday they are not building a naval base on Jeju Island so the U.S. military can use it to keep an eye on China.
Rather, they said, they are developing a “civil-military port for tourists and aesthetic beauty ... (to) accommodate a naval base and cruise liners,” and to which American ships will only have visitation rights.
“The base in not intended for a certain country.” said Rear Adm. Ku Okhyoe, the South Korean navy’s deputy chief of naval operations for force and planning.
Ku’s comments were made during a joint South Korean navy and Ministry of National Defense news conference to discuss the controversial Jeju Multipurpose Port Complex project. The goal of the briefing for about two-dozen representatives of foreign media organizations was to help “prevent misleading and distorted information from spreading around the world,” he said.
During the hour-long session, Ku and a ministry spokesman did their best to sidestep sensitive questions about how the base will be used, while emphasizing the primary purpose of the facility will be to allow the South Korean navy to better police the country’s vital sea lanes and respond faster to any acts of aggression by North Korea in the waters to the east or west of the Korean peninsula.
Construction of the base began earlier this year on Jeju Island, a popular tourist destination known for its natural beauty. When it is completed in 2015, the complex will be able to accommodate cruise ships and as many as 20 navy ships and submarines.
The project has been the subject of a number of court battles and sometimes violent protests instigated by people who believe the base will ruin the reputation of the island, as well as make it a primary target in the event of future hostilities in or around Asia.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Ku said through a translator, “It is imperative to have a naval base on strategically important Jeju to ... defend maritime interests and deter North Korean threats.”
However, the base will not become a de facto base of operations for the U.S. military, he said.
“It is purely built with a defensive purpose in mind, of protecting (South Korean) maritime territories just as any sovereign nation does,” he said. “Korea faces military threats from North Korea, and this naval base can be utilized to deter and repulse if deterrence fails.”
Asked if South Korea might someday find itself caught in the middle of a dispute, with the U.S. military wishing to use the Jeju Island base and China protesting such a move, Ku said while U.S. ships will be allowed to dock at the base temporarily, “This naval base is only for Korean ships.”