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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Environmentalists Stifled in Jeju

September 7, 2012 ·

South Korea's conservative government is building a naval base on top of a wealth of natural treasures -- and it's dead set on keeping environmentalists out of the discussion.

Soft coral off the coast of Jeju, which will likely be destroyed if the naval base goes forward (Photo by indepedent environmental assessment team).

On September 2, Dr. Imok Cha, a 51-year old San Francisco-based pathologist boarded a plane headed to Jeju Island, South Korea, where she was to present new findings at the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest environmental organization.

Dr. Cha was a registered participant at the IUCN Congress, which is being held at Jeju’s Jungmun resort from September 6 to 15. Approximately 8,000 conservationists are gathered there to discuss the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Yet just four miles away from where they meet, an environmental holocaust is taking place in Gangjeong village, where the construction of a 120-acre naval base is threatening a 400-year-old farming and fishing village, one of the earth’s most spectacular soft coral reefs, and coastal habitats for several endangered species.

But Dr. Cha’s journey to the IUCN was cut short at Incheon International Airport where, much to her surprise, immigration officers apprehended and detained her, forced her to give finger and foot prints, and then promptly put her on the next plane back to the United States. The South Korean government’s justification was that Dr. Cha had protested against the naval base in Washington, DC, which she hadn’t — and even if she had, how can civil disobedience justify deportation? 

The real reason they were preventing Dr. Cha from entering Korea was what she was carrying in her bag: findings from an independent environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the naval base construction that contradicted the ROK Navy’s EIA, which ignored three critically endangered species and impacts on rare coral reefs.

The independent EIA was conducted by a team of environmental scientists to assess the veracity of the Navy’s EIA. One biologist with Endangered Species International assessed how three endangered species—the estuary crab, freshwater shrimp, and boreal digging frog—were faring since their relocation. In the case of the endangered frog, the biologist found that “most of adult frogs have been probably killed or some will try to come back to the navy site to breed again but will find themselves lost and nowhere else to go.” He wrote from Jeju, “They let them be crushed and killed.”

Another team comprised of local, national, and international coral experts conducted several dives near the proposed base site, which is approximately 0.15 miles from the Tiger Isle UNESCO Biosphere Reserve buffer zone. Contrary to the Navy’s assessment, they concluded, “Construction of the Gangjeong naval base will cause immediate death to thousands of endangered coral colonies by being crushed or smothered with sedimentation.”

Dr. Cha isn’t the only one being blocked from participating in the IUCN Congress. The IUCN, the world’s largest conservation organization, has succumbed to the South Korean government’s mandate to quell social unrest and resistance to the base by excluding voices of dissent at the summit. The IUCN had promised Gangjeong villagers an informational booth, but just last week, IUCN Global Director Enrique J. Lahmann sent a denial email with no explanation. This was soon followed by an official IUCN statement that said, “IUCN has consistently supported the application of the Gangjeong Village Committee to have an exhibition stand at the Congress. Unfortunately our recommendation was not endorsed by our on-site partners.” One listed partner is Samsung, one of the very corporations contracted by the government to build the military base. The Korean government has banned demonstrations within a mile of the convention, ensuring that any critical dissent against the base is kept out.

The Jeju naval base will not only devastate ecosystems and sustainable livelihoods in Gangjeong. It will also play a central role in the militarized race for natural resources in the Asia-Pacific.

The Jeju naval base will stage the South Korean Maritime Task Flotilla 7, which includes AEGIS-equipped destroyers connected to the U.S. missile defense system. Seoul argues that the flotilla is needed to protect its trade routes in an increasingly tense region where countries are vying for access to natural resources in the South China Sea. South Korea, among the most energy intensive economies in the OECD, is highly trade-reliant—95 percent of its energy and industrial raw materials are imported from overseas. Because of the ongoing Korean War and division of the peninsula, 99.7 percent of South Korea’s trade is conducted via sea routes. Anders Riel Müller of the Institute for Food and Development Policy says, “the government has decided to sustain its economic growth by heavily investing in securing overseas oil fields, mines, and food resources.”

Instead of seeking more sustainable alternatives, such as investing in renewable energy or a domestic agricultural system, Seoul has chosen a militarized path—a very costly one, not just in terms of the drain it will put on dwindling public coffers, but also on its relatively young and fragile democracy. Not only have the government and police arrested and beaten Gangjeong villagers trying to protect their treasured natural resources, the Lee Myung-bak administration has decided it will do anything to prevent any voice of dissent from stopping this naval base, including deporting concerned internationals like Dr. Cha. She is now the 19th foreigner to be denied entry over the naval base, including three American veterans who served in Korea, and most recently three Okinawans on their way to the IUCN summit. 

The challenges facing all of us—climate change, rising food prices, and declining sources of fossil energy—urgently demand cooperation among nations. Unless we learn to share the world’s natural resources and develop sustainable alternatives, governments will be perpetually preparing for war to secure access to finite natural resources. At stake are not just the loss of endangered species or traditional livelihoods in Gangjeong, but also the severe violation of our human rights. Security interests may have blinded the South Korean government, but they should not silence the IUCN from taking a more principled stand to protect nature, traditional livelihoods, and free speech.

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Christine Ahn
FPIF Columnist