The battle for Jeju's naval base
Asia News Network
SEOUL — When former Navy Chief of Staff Kim Sung-chan was chosen as the Saenuri Party's candidate in the April parliamentary elections, it was viewed to represent the ruling party's determination to go ahead with the planned Jeju naval base construction.
After leading the effort to persuade and deal with the opponents, Kim said he was confident about carrying on the fight at the National Assembly if he had to.
"The naval base in Jeju is something that is utterly crucial in terms of the changing times and for the interest of our country," Kim said.
"The sea is also our territory and we cannot overturn the entire state project just for the sake of certain protesters and attempts to politicize the issue," he added.
The Navy says that building a naval base in the southern coastal area is crucial as it is the choke point that can deal with any threats from neighboring countries. Although there are other naval bases in Korea, including in Donghae, Pyeongtaek and Mokpo, they fall short of meeting the demands due to their low water levels and the size of their ports, it says.
The naval base located at the geographically strategic point will be effective in protecting autonomous rights over natural resources in Korean waters, as well as in dealing with maritime and territorial conflicts such as over Ieodo island, exclusive economic zones and demarcation of continental shelves, they say.
"Cooperation (with neighboring countries) is possible when we also have a certain level of strength," Kim said.
As a first-term lawmaker representing Jinhae, South Gyeongsang Province, Kim said he would continue to work on letting the citizens know the shortfalls of the arguments made by the protesters.
One of the outstanding reasons for the objection is that the base construction will damage the environment. They claim the "Gureombi Rock," the rocky outcrop in the area, has high geological value.
The Defense Ministry has countered that similar landscapes can be found across the island and that a majority of them will be conserved. It also points out that there are many similar cases where such features are removed for construction work.
"I am not saying all the problems raised by the environmentalists should be overlooked. Their opinions should be reflected in the construction along the way. However, it is problematic if the intention is not to optimize the environmental aspect but to stop the plan altogether," Kim said.
To the opponents' argument that an alternative location such as Hwasun could be considered, Kim said, "The Navy has also looked very closely into that before. However, a change of the location at this point will bring about another round of the same controversies, not to mention all the budget and energy that has been invested so far," Kim said.
To the protesters' claim that based on the current blueprint the port will be inadequate to house civil cruise vessels, Kim pointed out that the argument was incongruous as a larger port to house large cruise ships would require even more environmental damage.
In response to the protesters' claim that there are procedural faults with the project such as in gaining residents' approval, Kim said that it was important to fix whatever procedural error there is along the way but not at the cost of scrapping the entire project,.
"There is already a consensus that the base is necessary for the nation's security, and it has been proven that the procedure was lawful. We have also promised to carry on the construction in tandem with environmental protection," Kim said.
Saying that the entire construction process has been transparent, Kim also brushed off speculation that the base would be exploited by the United States.
"Every step will be revealed transparently. This is a determination by the state that the state will protect our territory."
Kim, furthermore, said that the move by opposition lawmakers to set up a special parliamentary committee on the Jeju base was unnecessary.
"There was already a parliamentary committee devoted to the issue last year that concluded to go ahead with the plan. If we could afford such committees again, it should be for more imminent issues such as the transfer of the wartime operational control."
'Naval presence would damage peace, eco-system'
As a Jeju native and a third-term veteran lawmaker, Rep. Kim Jae-yun of the Democratic United Party has been at the vanguard of the fight against the Jeju naval base development plan.
Kim has been moving to establish a special parliamentary committee to deliberate the naval plan, which he believes would raise regional tensions and damage the environment and image of the scenic island.
Along with fellow DUP lawmakers representing the two other Jeju constituencies, Kim flies back and forth between the southern island and Seoul, relaying residents' voices against the plan. He has recently co-hosted a seminar on Jeju with the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy to recount the perceived errors and faults of the naval plan.
Kim's move is propped up by some of the DUP presidential hopefuls as well, with Kim Doo-kwan — for whom Kim manages public relations — pledging to reconsider the feasibility of the project if he becomes president.
Kim's fellow protesters against the Jeju naval base argue that the project is in fact a move to construct a new U.S. naval base in Korea that would threaten the peace of the Korean Peninsula under the guise of being a "military-civilian tourism port."
"There is a fundamental question as to why we need such a base in Jeju. People have a hard time understanding that we need the base at a site that is the farthest away from North Korea," Kim said.
"They say that it is to secure our southern sea route. But that can be achieved through signing an agreement between countries and by reinforcing the maritime police," he added.
The protesters claim that it is contradictory to build such a strategic military base on the island named the "island of world peace" by the government in 2005.
In terms of environment, they argue that the Gureombi Rock is a rare geological feature that needs to be preserved, not to mention how the construction site is just a few hundred kilometers away from natural preservation areas.
"Because the process of evaluating the effects on the environment and finding cultural assets at the site were carried out rashly, it not only damages the ecosystem but seriously hurts the environment of the island that is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site," Kim said.
"Despite it being a national project, it is not right to push through it without consensus."
The proponents against the naval base also claim that the Defense Ministry is stepping back on its word to create a military-civilian port by dedicating the majority of the site to military facilities.
The government is scheduled to hold another simulation possibly within this month to showcase the docking of the two 150,000-ton cruise ships. Those opposing the facility had argued that the initial simulation carried out by the Korea Maritime University earlier this year could not be trusted.
Kim, during his previous radio interview with the local media, said that the Supreme Court's decision that the government's plan was legitimate should also be reviewed regarding the principles on which it was made.
"I am not sure if the judge carefully looked at the part where the government was pushing ahead with the plan as a maritime naval base, when it was supposed to be a military-civilian tourism port," Kim was quoted as saying.
Asked to comment on the government's argument that it is costly to stop the entire project, Kim said, "The construction so far has just been to prepare the ground."
"It is actually a good time to reset the direction for the sake of national interest."
Kim underscored that it was the task of the Assembly to try to find an alternative resolution.
"We must establish the special committee for the sake of resolving the conflict and for the future of the people to come up with alternatives," he said.
"Whether the site becomes a port of call, the project is reconsidered overall, or an alternative measure is prepared, it is up to the Assembly to find the solution."
He said he will continue to spearhead such a move in parliament by both pushing for the special committee and speaking up at the National Defense Committee.