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Paradise Jeju Island: A Tahiti in the South Pacific?

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Jeju Island is Korea's one of the most attractive tourist destinations for Koreans and foreign visitors alike. Its reputation of unique beauty and majesty has been widely known for a long time.

Indeed, Jeju is a special place. Its distinct traditions, diverse flora, magnificent landscapes and what could only be described as playful remnants of nature's most creative formation are harmoniously mixed to become home to nine of the world's 66 UNESCO Global Geoparks. Even Mr. Robert Redford, not so long ago, rightfully endorsed Jeju Island's allure as an "impeccable treasure on this planet."

Thank you for recognizing Jeju Island as a world famous paradise.

Now, Jeju Island is about to accommodate a new, modern naval base at one of its southern tips, similar to those located at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, San Diego in California and Apra Harbor in Guam.

Yet, there are protests and campaigns trying to stop this project of national importance.

Of course, some points are understandable. Environmental concerns are valid, particularly on how the naval base affects the island's surrounding ecosystem both land and underwater. In order to minimize the negative effects, the Korean government has undertaken extensive precautionary and preventative measures during both phases of construction and maintenance of the base. The Korean government is expected to cooperate closely with UNESCO to preserve Jeju Island's designated Biosphere Reserves, such as protection of Beomseom, which is located 1.7 kilometers (or 1.06 miles) off of the construction site.

Furthermore, the government plans to make a naval base as the eco-friendly, multipurpose, and scenic port include creating green belt zones surrounding the area. The new ports are also designed to promote tourism by including sizable docks accessible to cruise ships and other vessels created for maritime leisure.

Another issue raised was the question of the government's due process in approving and constructing the base. Korea is no longer a country where individual rights are readily abrogated and objections censored. This project has dutifully followed the due process of the law, accommodated a myriad of views and sought to reach a broad consensus based on understandings of disparate views.

Certainly in carrying out the plans for the new naval base, the Korean government has been struggling for more than a decade through conducting numerous polls and holding town hall meetings to incorporate a delicate balance of addressing its pressing issues of safeguarding national security, protecting the environment, and creating business opportunities and new jobs on Jeju Island.

As you may know, Korea is a nation of thriving industry and trade. It is also one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. In fact, Korea has become a society in which public debates and the reconciliation process make any national-level decision protracted. More importantly, Korea has been at the forefront of advancing environmental protection by leading the global efforts on climate change. Korea-based Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) was founded in June 2010 to promote green economic growth, which has become the underlying issue of United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP) Green Economy Report launched in 2011. Other green growth initiatives by the Korean government include the National Strategy for Green Growth (2009-2050) and the Five-Year Plan (2009-2013), which are recognized by the OECD for their aims to "provide a comprehensive policy framework for green growth in both the short and long term."

However, the strongest -- and frankly the most stupefying -- argument advanced by the naysayers is that the naval base is being constructed to serve the U.S. strategy of encircling China through its Aegis anti-ballistic missile systems. They conclude that this needlessly provokes China and sparks an arms race. Moreover, some even baselessly assert that the Korean government is building this naval base due to pressures from Washington.

As a matter of fact, there has been no request made from the U.S. to construct or exclusively use this naval base for certain purpose. This plan is purely Korea's own. Why would the Pentagon need Jeju to operate its Aegis anti-ballistic missile systems when the U.S. navy can fully operate from bases in Okinawa and other bases in Japan or in any other part of the Pacific?

For Korea, the most pressing needs addressed by constructing this new base relate to national security and safeguarding its national and economic interests.

A modern naval base has been planned by the Korean government since 1993. Expansion and further modernization of the Korean navy was limited without a modern base. Korea serves as the world's ninth largest trading nation with a total annual trade volume of more than $1 trillion (and it is also the seventh largest exporter of goods). About 600,000 merchant ships, of which 400,000 are Korean, pass by Jeju Island each year.

Furthermore, to participate in the international efforts to fight piracy, the Korean navy has to reach out to the Indian Ocean to protect its national and international civilian ships. One resounding example took place in January last year. Code named "Dawn of Gulf of Aden," Korean navy commandos executed a daring rescue mission near Somalia to save 21 crew members of a hijacked freighter, the Samho Jewelry, and brought the captured pirates to justice.

Without adequate preparedness, particularly without minimum requisite naval capabilities, how can Korea secure its own independence and protect its national and maritime interests?

The southern tip of Jeju Island turned out to be the most ideal place for this purpose because it offers the right conditions for a modern port that could accommodate naval and commercial ships, which have become much larger in size. Also, its ideal locale avails a balanced radius from which the navy can cover from North to South and East to West. Korea is surrounded by sea and often in dispute and conflict with neighboring countries.

As was demonstrated in 2010 by the North's attacks on the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, and on Yeonpyeong Island, Korea faces constant threats from North Korea. In addition, Korea is surrounded by powerful maritime forces in the world. China has the second largest navy in the world. Japan's sizable fleet has a total displacement of approximately 432,000 tons. Compared to the Korean navy's total displacement of about 181,000 tons, the difference is significantly asymmetric. Also, there are disputes in the region over the sea territory, continental shelf and the respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Korea's history was often marred by tragedy due to its lack of adequate defense capabilities. The country had been the victim of bitter rivalries and subjected to ambitious conquests from surrounding superpowers. Korea could not defend itself from invasions and become a battleground during many devastating wars. In 1882 China (Qing Dynasty) sent nearly 5000 troops from the sea and stationed in Korea for a decade until Japan landed and defeated the Chinese. Korea lost its sovereignty after the Japanese destroyed the Russian armada nearby Jeju Island in 1904. Korea cannot repeat its bitter part of history.

So, who should be the ones to care when Korea's territorial integrity and its national sovereignty are threatened? First and foremost, it should be Koreans. With that said, whom do the distorted opposing campaigns serve?

Korea cannot revert to the days of humiliation and subjugation. The Republic of Korea has built itself from the colonial hardships and ashes of war. Now, it is one of the leading economic and technological powers in the world. And at the same time, Korea is hailed as one of the most exemplary cases of developing a mature democracy, placing human values upfront at its goal.

Yes, Jeju Island is a paradise of peace, yet it is not a Tahiti in the Pacific.

Ambassador Young-mok Kim is the Consul General of the Republic of Korea in New York.