The Threat of Warships on an ‘Island of World Peace’

America’s imperium reaches South Korea’ idyllic Jeju island—but residents and peace activists are resisting.

Noam Chomsky

Sanbang mountain, on Jeju island, off the southwest coast of South Korea. (Image via

Jeju Island, 50 miles south­east of South Korea’s main­land, has been called the most idyl­lic place on the plan­et. The pris­tine, 706-square-mile vol­canic island com­pris­es three UNESCO World Nat­ur­al Her­itage sites.

The resistance is a grassroots movement that goes well beyond the issue of the island's militarization. Human rights, the environment and free speech are also at stake.

Jeju’s his­to­ry, how­ev­er, is far from idyl­lic. In 1948, two years before the out­break of the Kore­an War, the islanders staged an upris­ing to protest, among oth­er issues, the divi­sion of the Kore­an Penin­su­la into North and South. The main­land gov­ern­ment, then under U.S. mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion, cracked down on the Jeju insurgents.

South Kore­an police and mil­i­tary forces mas­sa­cred islanders and destroyed vil­lages. Korea his­to­ri­an John Mer­rill esti­mates that the death toll may have exceed­ed 30,000, about 15 per­cent of the island’s population.

Decades lat­er, a gov­ern­ment com­mis­sion inves­ti­gat­ed the Jeju upris­ing. In 2005, Roh Moo-hyun, then South Korea’s pres­i­dent, apol­o­gized for the atroc­i­ties and des­ig­nat­ed Jeju as an Island of World Peace.”

Today Jeju Island is once again threat­ened by joint U.S.-South Kore­an mil­i­ta­riza­tion and vio­lence: the con­struc­tion of a naval base on what many con­sid­er to be Jeju’s most beau­ti­ful coastline.

For more than four years, island res­i­dents and peace activists have engaged in deter­mined resis­tance to the base, risk­ing their lives and freedom.

The stakes are high for the world as well. Recent­ly the Kore­an Joon­gAng Dai­ly, in Seoul, described the island as the spear­head of the country’s defense line” – a line reck­less­ly locat­ed 300 miles from China.

In these trou­bled waters, the Jeju base would host up to 20 Amer­i­can and South Kore­an war­ships, includ­ing sub­marines, air­craft car­ri­ers and destroy­ers, sev­er­al of which would be fit­ted with the Aegis bal­lis­tic-mis­sile defense system.

For the Unit­ed States, the base’s pur­pose is to project force toward Chi­na – and to pro­vide a for­ward oper­at­ing instal­la­tion in the event of a mil­i­tary con­flict. The last thing the world needs is brinks­man­ship between the U.S. and China.

The protest now tak­ing place on Jeju counts as a crit­i­cal strug­gle against a poten­tial­ly dev­as­tat­ing war in Asia, and against the deeply root­ed insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures that are dri­ving the world toward ever more conflict.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Chi­na sees the base as a threat to its nation­al secu­ri­ty. At the very least, the base is like­ly to trig­ger con­fronta­tion and an arms race between South Korea and Chi­na, with the U.S. almost inevitably involved. Fail­ure to pre­vent this dan­ger­ous, destruc­tive project may well have con­se­quences reach­ing far beyond Asia.

We need not spec­u­late how Wash­ing­ton would react were Chi­na to estab­lish a base near the U.S. coast.

The new base on Jeju is locat­ed in Gang­jeong, a farm­ing and fish­ing vil­lage that has reluc­tant­ly become the site of an epic bat­tle for peace.

The resis­tance is a grass­roots move­ment that goes well beyond the issue of the island’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion. Human rights, the envi­ron­ment and free speech are also at stake. Though small and remote, Gang­jeong is an impor­tant bat­tle­ground for all who believe in social jus­tice worldwide.

South Korea start­ed con­struc­tion of the base in Jan­u­ary but protests halt­ed the work in June.

An eye­wit­ness reports that the vil­lagers’ non­vi­o­lent resis­tance has led to arrests tar­get­ing film­mak­ers, blog­gers, cler­ics, activists on social-net­work web­sites – and most notably, the lead­ers of the movement.

Last month, riot police broke up a non­vi­o­lent ral­ly and arrest­ed more than three dozen activists, includ­ing the may­or of Gang­jeong; the leader of one of the most effec­tive peace groups in Korea; and a Catholic priest.

Basic demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals are also under threat. In the 2007 vote to autho­rize the con­struc­tion of the naval base, 87 peo­ple, some of whom report­ed­ly were bribed, decid­ed the fate of an entire vil­lage of 1,900 and an island of more than a half-mil­lion people.

Islanders were told that the mil­i­tary base would dou­ble as a tourism hub for cruise ships – indeed, that it would be the only means for such ships to dock at the island, yield­ing com­mer­cial ben­e­fits. The claim is hard­ly cred­i­ble, if only because at the same time, on a dif­fer­ent shore, a mas­sive port expan­sion project has been under­way and could be com­plet­ed by sum­mer 2012. It has already been announced that this new port will host cruise liners.

Gang­jeong vil­lagers know full well what their future holds if their cry for peace is not heed­ed: an influx of South Kore­an and for­eign mil­i­tary per­son­nel, advanced arma­ments, and a world of suf­fer­ing deliv­ered to a small island that has already endured enough. The irony is that the seeds for future super­pow­er con­flict are being sown on an eco­log­i­cal pre­serve and island of peace.

© The New York Times News Service/​Syndicate

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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