POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 19, 2011
GANGJEONG, South Korea » Dozens of banners adorn this village on the southern coast of South Korea's southernmost major island, trumpeting anxieties that have invaded this otherwise idyllic community and divided it so deeply that residents say some fathers and sons have stopped talking to one another.
"Fight to the death against the American imperialists' anti-China naval base!" says one banner.
That declaration — and the underlying issue dividing this village of 1,000 fishermen and farmers on Jeju Island — mirrors the broader quandary South Korea faces, caught between the United States, its longstanding military ally, and China, its former battlefield foe but now its leading trading partner.
In January, the South Korean navy began construction on a $970 million base at Gangjeong. Once completed in 2014, it will be home to 20 warships, including submarines, that the navy says will protect shipping lanes for South Korea's export-driven economy, which is dependent on imported oil. It will also enable South Korea to respond quickly to a brewing territorial dispute with China over Socotra Rock, a submerged reef south of Jeju that the Koreans call Ieodo. Both sides believe it is surrounded by oil and mineral deposits.
U.S. ships cruising East Asian seas will be permitted to visit the port, the Defense Ministry says, and many villagers and anti-base activists from the Korean mainland suspect that the naval base will serve less as a shield against South Korea's prime enemy, North Korea, than as an outpost for the U.S. Navy to project its power against China.
Fear of becoming "the shrimp whose back gets broken in a fight between whales" — a popular saying in this country, whose territory has been the battlefield of bigger powers — is palpable in this village, where palm trees sway in the wind and low-slung homes lie snug behind walls of volcanic rock.
"I don't understand why we're trying so hard to accommodate something people in Okinawa tried so hard to resist," said Kim Jong-hwan, 55, a tangerine farmer, referring to the Japanese islanders' struggle against the U.S. military base there. "When I think how the Americans go around the world starting wars, I can only expect the worst."
Older islanders have harrowing memories of war. Shortly before and during the 1950-53 Korean War, government troops cracking down on people they suspected of being leftists who might sympathize with North Korea devastated Jeju, burning villages and killing about 30,000 people, or one-tenth of the population. In 2005, the government designated Jeju, sometimes romanized as Cheju, as a "peace island."
For months, Kim and other villagers have joined the anti-base activists, squatting in the center of the construction zone. When the police tried to remove them recently, they chained themselves to trees.
The South Korean navy has erected a billboard in the village displaying an artist's conception of a state-of-the-art, "eco-friendly" port, covering about 125 acres and receiving luxury cruise ships as well as military vessels.
"A new attraction for beautiful Jeju!" it proclaims.
Nearby, protesters' banners accuse the navy of destroying the environment and the villagers' way of life.
"Don't bring war here!" one says.
Both the South Korean and U.S. militaries insist that the U.S. military is not involved in the base's construction. Nor is the base directed against a particular country, the Defense Ministry says. But the controversy feeds on the unease many South Koreans feel as they struggle to reconcile the influence of a rising China with their longstanding security ties to the United States.
Ever since the United States fought alongside it in the Korean War, South Korea has considered its alliance with Washington a top priority, a position re-emphasized after North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and its recent military provocations, including the shelling of another South Korean island in November. But many South Koreans, especially younger ones, suspect that Washington is exploiting that sense of vulnerability to compel their country into advancing U.S. foreign policy interests.
Meanwhile, trade with China exceeds South Korea's trade with the United States and Japan combined. But Beijing also maintains close ties with North Korea.
"The question behind Jeju is, can South Korea afford to confront China? Or, can it afford not to confront China?" said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Yun Yon, a retired navy vice admiral, said, "We may do business with the Chinese, but still it's the Americans we should do security with."
Song Kang-ho, an activist against the base, disagreed. "With the U.S. economy in a mess, it's just a matter of time before China dominates Northeast Asia," Song said. "We should keep neutral between the rising and declining superpowers."
In 2005, South Korea's fear of confronting China flared into a public quarrel between Seoul and Washington over "strategic flexibility," a plan that would redefine the mission of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea for the South's defense, allowing them to be sent to conflicts elsewhere. The dispute was patched up in 2006 when Washington agreed to respect South Korea's wish not to be "involved in a regional conflict in Northeast Asia against the will of the Korean people."
Yet, pressure from both China and the United States continued as South Korea expanded its navy, building KDX-III destroyers fitted with the U.S.-designed Aegis missile-intercepting system.
In March, Ellen O. Tauscher, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said the United States wanted South Korea to expand the allies' low-level missile defense ties into an integrated regional missile defense system that some experts suspect was intended as a shield against China.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, said the new Aegis destroyers to be based in Jeju would help defend South Korea against Chinese missiles and help defend Japan against missiles from both China and North Korea.
But they "won't provide much defense for South Korea against North Korean missiles," he said. "Very few North Korean missiles would rise high enough on their way toward South Korea to give South Korean destroyers a shot."
China had already complained, in 2004, about South Korea's missile defense cooperation with the United States, said Kim Jong-dae, who served in the office of Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea's president from 2003 to 2008. Later, it denounced the planned naval base in Jeju, Yun said.
Partly out of deference to Beijing, Seoul has yet to commit itself fully to the U.S. missile defense program. Even so, John F. Fei of the Rand Corp. said in a paper published in February that the construction of the Jeju base might indicate that once South Korea saw China's rising economic power as a possible threat, "it no longer repressed voices within the elite calling for a more muscular political and security posture to hedge against China."
Still, Matthew Hoey, an arms control analyst based in Cambridge, Mass., who recently visited Gangjeong to support those fighting the base, argued that the base could set off a regional arms race by prompting China to upgrade its own strategic deterrent.
The divide in this Korean village has turned emotional, often erupting into shouting matches. Those who favor the base and those who do not avoid one another on the street and even shop at different stores, according to villagers on both sides. Gangjeong once had 50 various social associations, but the members' ties have been broken as "even fathers and sons, as well as bothers, turned their back against each other," said Kim, the tangerine farmer.
Speaking about the opponents of the base, Koh Jong-pyo, 47, an abalone fisherman, said: "They worry too much. Think what it could do for the local economy whenever an American aircraft carrier arrives with thousands of sailors and their cash."