On the small, spectacular island of Jeju, off the southern tip of Korea, indigenous villagers have been putting their bodies in the way of construction of a joint South Korean–US naval base that would be an environmental, cultural and political disaster. If completed, the base would hold more than 7,000 navy personnel, plus twenty warships including US aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and destroyers carrying the latest Aegis missiles—all aimed at China, only 300 miles away.
Since 2007, when the $970 million project was first announced, the outraged Tamna people of Gangjeong village have exhausted every legal and peaceful means to stop it. They filed lawsuits. They held a referendum in which 94 percent of the electorate voted against construction—a vote the central government ignored. They chained themselves for months to a shipping container parked on the main access road, built blockades of boulders at the construction gate and occupied coral-reef dredging cranes. They have been arrested by the hundreds. Mayor Kang Dong-Kyun, who was jailed for three months, said, “If the villagers have committed any crime, it is the crime of aspiring to pass their beautiful village to their descendants.”
Jeju is just one island in a growing constellation of geostrategic points that are being militarized as part of President Obama’s “Pacific Pivot,” a major initiative announced late in 2011 to counter a rising China. According to separate statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, 60 percent of US military resources are swiftly shifting from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. (The United States already has 219 bases on foreign soil in the Asia-Pacific; by comparison, China has none.) The Jeju base would augment the Aegis-equipped systems in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and the US colony of Guam. The Pentagon has also positioned Patriot PAC-3 missile defense systems in Taiwan, Japan (where the United States has some ninety installations, plus about 47,000 troops on Okinawa) and in South Korea (which hosts more than 100 US facilities).
On the island of Jeju, the consequences of the Pacific Pivot are cataclysmic. The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, adjacent to the proposed military port, would be traversed by aircraft carriers and contaminated by other military ships. Base activity would wipe out one of the most spectacular remaining soft-coral forests in the world. It would kill Korea’s last pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and contaminate some of the purest, most abundant spring water on the planet. It would also destroy the habitats of thousands of species of plants and animals—many of which, such as the narrow-mouthed frog and the red-footed crab, are gravely endangered already. Indigenous, sustainable livelihoods—including oyster diving and local farming methods that have thrived for thousands of years—would cease to exist, and many fear that traditional village life would be sacrificed to bars, restaurants and brothels for military personnel.