Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jeju islanders want love, not war

Plans for a missile base on South Korea's Jeju island, 450 kilometers, from Shanghai have threatened to disturb a precarious balance of power in the East China Sea. But Washington's aspirations to use the base have been blocked by residents of the island.

The administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced commitments in 2008 and 2009 to purchase and deploy a fleet of Aegis destroyers equipped with US anti-ballistic missile and radar systems, built jointly by Hyundai and Lockheed-Martin. To date, opposition to construction of the base and a pending lawsuit have delayed preparation of a home port for the ships. But following the March 26 sinking of the South Korean

corvette Cheonan, the government has grown less tolerant of dissent.

The Cheonan incident has also accelerated preparation of a long-term US deployment in the region, including talk that a US carrier group may arrive shortly. ABC TV reported the proposal, which the Department of Defense subsequently denied. With the decision on the Jeju naval base remaining in abeyance, however, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has not announced its response.

The use of Jeju for bellicose purposes has long seemed counter-intuitive to its inhabitants. The island was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2007 due to its unique geological and natural characteristics. It has become a model for Asia's ecotourism industry - and a favorite of Korean honeymooners, who get free sex-education classes at the Jeju Loveland theme park. The tourist economy is complemented by exports of seafood, livestock and agricultural products.

The Korean government sought public approval for siting the naval base at the Jeju villages of Hwaseon in 2002, and Miwi in 2005, but the proposal was rejected. When the base was proposed for Gangjeong in 2007, 94% of villagers opposed deployment. Pressure for the base has grown since construction of the new fleet was announced. Opponents of the base on Jeju have reported that numerous arrests and unusually high fines have arisen from their protests.

But residents of one tiny fishing village are resolute. Last month, they announced they would fight the administration ''to the death'' before allowing their island paradise to be turned into another Okinawa, where more than half the 47,000 American troops stationed in Japan are based. With pressure growing on the administration to begin construction, and the US Navy scheduling embarkation, the Choenan incident could not come at a more critical juncture.

South Korean defense and intelligence officials initially said that the sinking of the Cheonan - with the loss of 46 lives - did not involve North Korea. An international investigation, however, blamed Pyongyang for the incident. It was followed by a crackdown against the report's critics, and concerns persist that Seoul may be drifting toward rigid tendencies thought to have been abandoned when it ended one-party rule in 1987.

Civil investigator SC Shin, assigned by the Korean National Assembly to participate in the Cheonan investigation, found no evidence of damage to the interior of the ship, no burning of cable housings, nor any signs on sailors' bodies of pressure, burns or shrapnel from the alleged torpedo explosion.

He reported that the ship radioed naval headquarters and the Coast Guard that it had been grounded. Shin also reported that four Aegis destroyers of between 6,800 and 9,600 tonnes were participating in a naval exercise 130 kilometers from the scene, and he described the 1,200 ton Cheonan being split in two as the likely result of a collision with a much larger ship. After he made his findings public, he was charged with defamation by defense officials who blamed the wreckage on a North Korean torpedo, and he was questioned by the Seoul Prosecutor's office. A member of the National Assembly who contradicted the report's conclusions was also charged with defamation.

Shin was not the first to be subject to such treatment. Some of the country's most prominent journalists were arrested in 2008, imprisoned and prosecuted, also on charges of defamation, following reporting of a Lee administration deal to lift a ban on imports of American beef and claims that the end of restrictions left consumers inadequately protected against mad cow disease.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank LaRue, said the right to free expression and free assembly had diminished not long after Lee's election. Media ownership had become more concentrated, said LaRue, who was refused meetings with any government ministers and was tailed by the National Intelligence Service on his recent visit to Korea.

China's interest in the base on Jeju has been piqued by the possibility that the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington would be included in the new US deployment. The Beijing newspaper Global Times found that 96% of respondents to its online poll said that the carrier's deployment in the East China Sea posed a threat to China.

Beijing has built up its naval force in the decade since Jeju island first attracted Washington's attention, but China's small nuclear deterrent force is vulnerable to the large presence of anti-ballistic missiles (ABM).

China's deterrent is aimed at US strategic targets and discouraging the US from making a first strike. The ABM deployment - euphemistically labeled missile "defense" by its promoters - carries with it the threat of attacking an enemy's deterrent force before it can be launched, thus permitting a first strike without risk of retaliation.

Chinese Air Force Colonel Dai Xu, a frequent commentator of strategic issues, describes ABM deployments on Japanese and now on Korean ships as "a crescent-shaped ring of encirclement", which "begins in Japan, stretches through nations in the South China Sea, to India and ends in Afghanistan". On completion of Seoul's new fleet, the Lockheed-Hyundai partnership plans to market Aegis ships to India. Hence, the balance of power in Asia may rest on the resolution of the stand-off between Lee and his opponents, under the cloud of the Choenan incident.

The incident is politically sensitive to Lee and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who played an important part in promoting the investigation. Lee was chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai until he resigned in 1992 to run for public office. While in congress, Clinton received so many donations from Lockheed-Martin that New York Magazine once questioned whether she had become "the senator from Lockheed". [1]

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