Saturday, June 19, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 3: Militarization on an Island of Peace

Our delegation arrived in Jeju late last night and there wasn't much to see in the middle of the night riding on a bus to the hotel. Today, we have a packed schedule of meeting with some of the villagers of Gangjeong, their mayor, a tour of different military facilities on Jeju Island, and finally a presentation this evening to the villager on our work and what is happening in other communities affecting by similar problems of militarization.

For those who may not know much about Jeju or Gangjeong, I'm pasted an article below which puts the local struggle here on this island into a wider global strategic context very well. From the little I know so far about what the South Korean and US militarys have planned for this island and this tiny village, it is clear that every large grand plan depends upon small, local places. Often times the most valuable asset that these small, tiny place provide to those big grand plans, is that they are small, and outside of the vision of most people. Although Jeju is ideally located geographically in strategic terms, it is always important to remember that the value of small, islands or far away places is first, their invisibility, and second, the banality that emerges from that. The way that their smallness, their distance, the way they tend to be thought of as rural, backwards or country congeals to form this veneer of banality, where what happens there seems to matter less or not matter at all. This is one of this key equations for understanding force, power and how sovereignty is created, that distinction whereby a site for one becomes the key to their ability to create violence or enforce order, and for nearly all others, means very little and close to nothing.

One thing struck me, even as I was walking through the airport and reading the signs and ads (or at least what was in English). Jeju was christened last year as an "Island of Peace." Considering that planners in Seoul, Washington D.C. and Beijing see Jeju more as an "Island of War" that makes it all the more crucial what happens in Gangjeong Village, yet another one of those small, but critical details of empire.

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Jeju and a Naval Arms Race in Asia
Foreign Policy in Focus
By Kyoungeun Cha, June 18, 2010
FPIF contributor Kyoungeun Cha works for the Peace Network in South Asia.

Jeju Island Maritime security has been a top issue in Northeast Asia recently. The sinking of the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was a major agenda item at the annual summit that South Korean conducted with Japan and China on Jeju Island last month. Jeju Island is important for another reason. The South Korean government is planning
to build a naval base there.

Jeju Island is a special self-governing province located just southeast of South Korea. Its location in the center of Northeast Asia has given Jeju Island a political and geographic advantage. To the east, the island faces Tsushima Island and the Japanese prefecture of Janggi, with the South Sea and East China Sea in between. To the west, Jeju faces Shanghai across the East China Sea. The South China Sea lies south of the island, while the mainland of South Korea lies to the north.

Despite its strategic location, Jeju Island is a strange place for a military base. UNESCO has declared the island a World Heritage site, and it is a popular honeymoon destination. The former Roh Moo-hyun government also designated Jeju as a “peace island.” And yet the South Korean government has wanted to build a naval base on the island since 2002. Although there has been strong local resistance, the South Korean government plans to build the base in Geongjeong village, the third proposed site.

Jeju Island has long been a focus of strategic and security interests in Northeast sia. During World War II, the Japanese used the island to defend Japan from American forces. There were supply bases on the sland for 75,000 Japanese soldiers. The U.S. military later attempted to fortify the island after the fall of Japanese empire.

And today, Jeju Island is again the focus of attention. But this time, it is the latest escalation in a naval arms race in Northeast Asia.

Jeju Island’s strategic location has become even more important recently because of increased regional interest in maritime security. China and Japan have strengthened their marine military strategy. A 2009 Pentagon report estimated Chinese naval forces to possess 260 vessels, including 75 “principal combatants” — major warships — and more than 60 submarines. Also, the navy receives more than one-third of the overall official Chinese military budget of $78 billion. Because the Chinese government greatly underreports its military sending, however, China’s real military budget is more than that.

Meanwhile, Japan has similarly developed its naval military strategy. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) deploys perhaps the mostmodern and capable diesel-electric submarine force in the world. TheMSDF has 44,000 military personnel, 18 submarines, 9 frigates boats,and the second largest number of Aegis-equipped destroyers in the world, after the United States.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s administration has also joined this effort to increase naval power. According to the 2010 defensebudget, spending on naval vessels is increasing 23.7 percent over lastyear’s numbers. The naval base built on Jeju alone was earmarked for97.5 billion won ($7.8 million). “The investment in the naval ship sector is focusing on securing high-tech destroyers and submarinescontinually with an aim to improve capability of command of the seaaround the Korean Peninsula as well as building up capability toperform landing operation,” says Korea Institute for Defense Analyses(KIDA) scholar Peak Jae Ok.

The Cheonan incident, which involved the sinking of a South Koreanship in the Yellow Sea, has pushed the Lee administration to increasenaval spending in the 2011 military budget. South Korea has pledged toincrease maritime surveillance and national defense R&D to prepare forNorth Korean provocations. However, director of the Center forSecurity and Strategy at KIDA, Park Chang-Kwoun, says that “the SouthKorean government needs to balance military power and advisegovernment officials not to make hasty decisions.”

The U.S.-Korea alliance is closely related to this issue. The navalforces of the United States are the most powerful in the world. TheU.S. and South Korean government are expanding their militaryalliance, and if the naval base on Jeju Island is set up, the U.S.navy will use the base to monitor China’s naval power. Because of itsclose location to China, the naval base will primarily be a bulwarkagainst Chinese expansion rather than defend against North Koreathreat (for which the bases in Busan and Jinhae are better suited.)

The Jeju naval base is a likely bone of contention between the UnitedStates and China because of missile defense. Seoul plans to dockAegis-equipped destroyers at Jeju. These warships are the mainmilitary component of the U.S. missile defense system. According toXinhua Chinese newspaper, South Korea plans to build a new naval baseon the southern island of Jeju to expand the range of its navaloperations. U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin provides the Aegiscombat system to Seoul. “China regards missile defense as the 21stcentury’s greatest threat and is dissatisfied with U.S. missiledefense policy,” argues Cheong Wook-sik, director of Peace Network inSouth Korea. China believes that, in the event of a conflict overTaiwan, the United States will inevitably become involved because ofmissile defense.

South Korea, meanwhile, has indicated its interest in becoming moreintegrated into the U.S. missile defense system. In this way, bybecoming caught in a conflict between China and the United States, thenaval base could endanger Jeju Island and the national security ofSouth Korea. According to Lee Tae-ho, deputy secretary general ofPeople’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in South Korea, “TheChinese government has a response strategy that first attacks U.S.missile defense in the case of an emergency. That means that the Jejunaval base will be targeted in an armed conflict between the UnitedStates and China.” Even short of war, the base will create tensionamong China, Japan, and Korea, which could escalate into a naval armsrace in the Asia-Pacific region.

The naval base issue has also become a political hot potato in therecent elections on Jeju Island. Most candidates promised to dealdecisively with the conflict between the government and the islanders.But the people of Jeju are very mistrustful of the current Jejugovernor’s handling of the naval base plan. When the ministry of theNational Defense Department decided to build the naval base site inGeongjeong village, the procedure to secure the agreement of thevillagers was not transparent. The referendum that took place on May14, 2007 did not accurately reflect the real opinions of theresidents. Four months after the referendum, when the GeongjeongVillage People’s Council held a vote on the issue, 94 percent of thevillagers were against the naval base.

After the recent election on the island, the naval issue becameembroiled in more controversy. As soon as the election finished,Captain Lee Eun-Guk of the Jeju naval base business committeeannounced that the Navy plans to begin construction in the harbor andbay in September. On the other hand, Woo Geun-Min, the newly electedgovernor, expressed regret over pushing ahead with the naval base planso precipitously, saying that “Now it’s time to respect each other’sview.” Jeju islanders have appealed to him. But the new governor hasnot opposed the naval plan in principle. Rather, he has adopted anambivalent posture.

Last April, 450 Geongjeong villagers filed a suit against the defenseminister. The suit maintains that the ministry illegally approved thebase plan without carrying out an environmental impact statement. Thefirst court decision on the suit will be handed down on July 15.

In terms of the conflict between islanders and government, the case ofthe Jeju base is similar to the situation involving the U.S. militarybase in Okinawa. Former Japanese Prime Minster Yukio Hatoyama resignedafter approving the original plan of relocating the Futenma MarineCorps base within Okinawa prefecture. Although acknowledging Okinawan concerns, Hatoyama decided to keep Washington happy. Jeju’s newgovernor, like Hatoyama, is caught between local demands and national priorities.

The naval base issue affects the very existence of the islanders’life. The construction of a naval base not only could raise regionalmilitary tensions but also disrupt the ecosystem on the island. Thereare many cases of environmental destruction due to military bases inthe Asia-Pacific region, including Okinawa, Hawaii, and Guam. TheSouth Korean government has argued that tourism and U.S. militarybases can coexist. According to Kyle Kajihiro, a leader of theDMZ-Hawai'i / Aloha 'Aina network, “The Korean government’s argumentthat militarization has been good for Hawaii and would be good forJeju is dead wrong.” U.S. marine corps bases in Okinawa, Hawaii, andGuam were constructed in the postwar era before the rise of tourism on these islands. Jeju Island has already been discovered as a touristdestination, so the base will likely cause severe damage to the localeconomy.

In terms of security, economy, and environment, the Jeju naval base isa risky proposition. It’s not a good idea to ignore the dangers. SouthKorea’s naval power can’t catch up with China and Japan. Instead ofconstructing a naval base on Peace Island, South Korea should signalto China and Japan that a naval arms race is simply not worth it.

Sea-power competition also raises some troubling questions about thefuture of maritime stability in Asia. There are many territorial disputes in the region, and there have been numerous naval clashes. No one wants another Okinawa situation. However, it's possible topreserve maritime security through a nonmilitary cooperative systemlike the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). Those organizations have played amajor role in safeguarding maritime stability by encouraginggovernments to negotiate with each other. A military base on JejuIsland and a naval arms race in the region, on the other hand, willonly make a bad situation worse.

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