Jeju Island Naval Base- A Threat to the South Korean Island of World Peace

January 4, 2013
Month-long march for peace from Jeju Island to Seoul

Month-long march for peace from Jeju Island to Seoul (photo permission from www.savejejunow.org, 2013)

Known for its incredible biodiversity, God’s Creation and people on Jeju Island in South Korea are threatened with plans to build a military base that will most likely destroy the fragile coral reef ecosystem, contaminate food and water sources in the Gangjeong community, and harm their local economy and livelihoods.Pollution from toxic chemicals, destruction of fragile ecosystems, and a large presence of military personnel are the biggest concerns. Gangjeong, the site of the proposed base, is surrounded by a biosphere reserve and three UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to the ecological significance of the region. Big interests from corporations, foreign and domestic militaries, and politicians have high stakes in seeing this project going forward. Already construction has begun and the environmental and social damage is beginning to appear.

Father Pat Cunningham

Father Pat Cunningham

Columbans, in particular Fr. Pat Cunningham, have been involved with this struggle for some time now- as have other Catholic orders, faith traditions, environmentalists, and peace activists through the Save Jeju Now Coalition. The coalition has been organizing the last six years to oppose the naval base construction.

Since 2011 roughly 130,000 police officers have been based on Jeju Island. The police have arrested more than 690 villagers and peace activists, imprisoned 22 people, and took indiscriminate judicial disposal on more than 480 people. Among the imprisoned, Jesuit Fr. Lee Young Chan was recently released on December 26, 2012 after 63 days in captivity for climbing on top of a cement truck. In January 2012, twenty nuns and a priest were arrested for praying for peace outside the gates of the naval construction. On December 28, 2011, 13 Catholic priests were on trial for holding a peace mass and sit-in protest. Catholics and other faith groups regularly organize prayer vigils and masses to protest the base.

The Save Jeju Island Coalition is using creative tactics such as a satirical music video in the style of Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style” to show scenes from the protest movement including a Jesuit priest, and building relationships with Robert Redford to call attention to their movement. We will continue to share news from Jeju through Fr. Pat Cunningham. He encourages everyone to visit the Save Jeju Now Coalition to learn more. Check out photos from their New Year’s celebrations focused on opposing the base: http://savejejunow.org

The rest of the article will highlight some of the vested interests in the base construction and the opposition movement’s current efforts to stop it.

Military Interests

Villagers and allies protesting the Jeju island Naval base

Villagers and allies protesting the Jeju island Naval base construction (photo permission from savejejunow.org, 2013)

The Jeju island is strategically located in the Strait of Korea. It is widely believed that the site will be used for the U.S. ballistic missile defense program and that the United States is pushing for the base construction to expand its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Residents of the island fear that the strategic location will leave them more vulnerable to attacks from North Korea, Japan, and China. They are also concerned that the presence of thousands of military personnel on the island would change the local culture and create a greater presence of bars and prostitution, which could harm the traditional community and public health. Already the large police presence causes unease and challenges in the the community. [i]

Corporate Interests

Father Pat Cunningham at Mass flanked by priests and police

Father Pat Cunningham at Mass flanked by priests and police

South Korea contracted Samsung, the largest and most successful company in South Korea, to build the naval base. In Korea Samsung not only produces electronics but they also build roads, oil rigs, and amusement parks. Ironically, in the fall of 2012, Samsung sponsored the World Conservation Congress (WCC) on Jeju Island. The WCC is a global gathering of environmentalists committed to protecting biodiversity. The Gangjeong community was not allowed to attend the event and share about expected destruction of Jeju’s fragile marine ecosystem. Columbans joined other religious leaders, peace activists, environmentalists, and Gangjeong villagers to protest the naval base construction at the WCC.

Samsung is very influential in South Korean politics and was in fact started with government funding. They wield great influence in politics. As a result, South Korea ranks poorly among corruption rankings for democratized countries.[ii] This worsened under the outgoing President Lee Myung-bak. In 2009 he pardoned a former Samsung executive, imprisoned on financial charges, so that he could lobby for Pyeongchang to successfully obtain the Summer Olympics in 2018. He also happens to sit on the International Olympic Committee.[iii]

All eyes should watch what role Samsungs’ lobbyists play in garnering votes for the proposed $200 billion naval construction budget in the coming days and weeks ahead.

Political Atmosphere

The relationship between companies and the South Korean government have been very cozy since the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee in the 1960s when this model of starting large companies with government funding was first born.

His daughter, Park Gueng-hee was just elected president in December 2012. While public opinion’s now mostly negative view of Samsung and other big companies did prompt the presidential candidates to suggest they would make efforts to reign in big companies,[iv] it is unlikely that Ms. Park will put a stop to the base construction. Columban Father Pat Cunningham, who directs JPIC ministries in South Korea, had this take on the elections:

“On the face of it her election as the first female president seems like a milestone in a very male-dominated culture. While breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling for women could indeed be a golden opportunity for her to improve the standing of her fellow countrywomen- let’s wait and see! However, for the younger generation she embodies a throwback to the old days of her father, the notorious military ruler Park Chung-hee and the two military rulers who succeeded him.

Their regimes are dominated by stories of human rights abuses, imprisonment, torture, and in some cases, death sentences for people they saw as threats to their authority.

President elect Miss Park is known for her infamous remark of wanting to turn Jeju Island- “the island of peace” into another Hawaii. But Hawaii was so badly contaminated by a naval base that it had to import all its food from the mainland. The villagers clearly don’t want another Hawaii, but Miss Park believes that the future of the village must be sacrificed at the altar of national security interests undermining the local community and destroying the deep and sacred connection the people have with the local environment. She has never visited the village or offered any semblance of support or sympathy to the people in their herculean struggle to save their traditional way of life and preserve their natural environment.”

Currently the biggest issue for the opposition movement is putting a stop to the $200 billion earmarked for the base construction. Father Pat described some of the activities underway:

photo permission from www.savejejunow.org, 2013

“The most pressing pre- and post-election issue is getting the $200 million budget  earmarked for the base construction in 2013 cut, or at least cut to the point of stalling the 24-hour breakneck pace of construction work. Before the election a number of activists including Fr. Mun Jong Hyen, the Mayor of Gangjeong, and a number of Jesuit Priests participated in a fast and head shaving ceremony outside the National Assembly and in Gangjeong. They are condemning the way the ruling Saenuri party (New Frontier Party- the party of Ms. Park) members of the national defense budget committee unilaterally railroaded the 2013 budget through the preliminary phase without any debate or consultation with opposition party members.

peace bows outside Korean embassy

Peace Bows outside of the Korean embassy (photo permission from www.savejejunow.org, 2013)

The final decision rests with the 50 members of the Budget and Balance Committee in the National Assembly, which is dominated by the Saenuri party with a 27 to 23 margin. This crucial decision that could decide the fate of the base and the future of the villagers and the coastal environment is due any day soon.  Activists and village leaders have been doing peace bows in front of the National Assembly, Seoul, since December 24th and with the final day of talks (December 29th)  having come and gone, the nervousness will continue into next week.”

What you can do

Weigh in with your faithful voice! Call on the Korean Embassy to stop the construction of the military base. Click here for a letter you can email or fax to the Korean Embassy.


[i] Fellowship of Reconciliation. http://forusa.org/blogs/linda-kelly/save-jeju-island/10111. Accessed 1/3/13.

[ii] “In South Korea, the Republic of Samsung.” Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-s-korea-the-republic-of-samsung/2012/12/09/71215420-3de1-11e2-bca3-aadc9b7e29c5_story_1.html. Accessed 1/3/12.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid.