A Call Against Arms
The tiny South Korean island of Jeju has been called the 'Island of Peace', but could a new naval base endanger that?
Last Modified: 29 Nov 2011 08:39

Activist: Sung-Hee Choi and Song Kang Ho

Filmmaker: Hannah Murphy

In a tiny village on a small island off the coast of South Korea an entire community is taking on the might of the South Korean navy and government to contest the construction of one of the region's largest naval bases.

The village of Gangjeong on the island of Jeju has fewer than 2,000 inhabitants but it has become the epicentre of growing discontent over one of the world's biggest arms races.

The South Korean government is adamant that the Gangjeong naval base, which it began constructing in 2007, will strengthen national security. But those opposed to it fear that the $920.5mn defence project will destabilise the region, provoking unwanted military confrontations between neighbouring countries. Many argue that the 480,000 square metre military facility, which will house up to 20 warships, will serve as a strategic site for US naval deployment in the region, thus potentially enflaming relations with China.

Sung-Hee Choi and Song Kang Ho are among the many villagers and activists who are dedicating their lives to saving Gangjeong village. They have both served lengthy prison sentences for their activism, but continue to risk re-arrest by standing between the village and the authorities. With more than 90 per cent of villagers rejecting the construction of the naval base, this is a community that is unwilling to lie down.

Since construction started, a towering wall flanked with barbed wire has cut the villagers off from the sea and the land bordering the coast. Gangjeong residents are prohibited from going beyond the fence and entering the site carries a fine of $2,000 and a potential prison sentence. 

But this unusual and eerie volcanic coastline is a place of spiritual worship for the villagers and the rich marine life and colourful coral reefs are a key source of the village's livelihood. The villagers and activists from the mainland are engaged in daily non-violent action - such as lying down in front of the bulldozers and chaining themselves to the gates of the construction site - in a bid to protect their unique coastal environment, which is protected under international law.

But this epic struggle has taken its toll on the villagers. The community has fragmented. The mayor is serving a prison sentence for opposing the construction and studies have revealed a dramatic increase in psychological problems among the villagers. This once peaceful village is now clinging on for its survival.

Al Jazeera
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