- - Wednesday, October 5, 2011

SEOUL — A heated dispute about the construction of a naval base has brought into sharp focus South Korea’s conflicted position between No. 1 security partner the United States and No. 1 trade partner China.

Construction of a 586,000-square-yard base on Jeju Island, a tourist destination 56 miles off South Korea’s southeast coast, started in 2006. But the project has been halted seven times because of ongoing protests.

Demonstrators say that the base is part of a clandestine anti-China strategy in Washington, rather than a strategic bulwark for South Korea, and that it will pollute the island’s environment.

In addition, Jeju’s Provincial Council last month announced the result of an administrative investigation that uncovered irregularities in base-planning procedures.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s embattled navy presented its side of the story, saying the base will not harbor U.S. warships.

“Port visits by U.S. Navy ships will only be temporary; they will not be permanently stationed on Jeju,” Rear Adm. Koo Ok-hyoe said at a news conference at Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense. “[The base] is being built to protect Korean maritime territory, just as any sovereign nation does.”

Adm. Koo said the base, scheduled to open in 2014, is for dual civilian-military use. In the latter role, it would help project power and protect trade-dependent South Korea’s sea lanes while allowing its navy to shift assets between the peninsula’s east and west coasts in the event of North Korean incursions.

The admiral also noted that the base would be too small to accommodate U.S. aircraft carriers, and reiterated that South Korea has no intention of taking part in a Japan-U.S. missile-defense system.

Critics remain unconvinced.

According to the navy, 56 percent of nearby villagers favor the base for its economic benefits.

But local opponents have been joined by protesters and nongovernmental organizations from the mainland, and several high-profile activists have been arrested during demonstrations.

“A naval base on Jeju is not essential to protect South Korea, but may be used as a U.S. naval base instead of Okinawa,” said Kim Sung-soo, a Seoul-based Quaker, referring to a giant U.S. Marine base that is being downsized. “That would damage the security of East Asia, as tension in the region would rise between China and the USA.”

However, Adm. Koo said Beijing has not protested U.S. naval visits to the existing Pyeongtaek Naval Base on South Korea’s western, China-facing coast.

The uproar about the base’s strategic ramifications reflects a wider debate in South Korean society.

In 1950, Beijing intervened in the Korean War, rescuing a tottering North Korea. To this day, it remains Pyongyang’s closest ally.

Yet, as its economy has surged, China has become South Korea’s top trade partner, raising questions about how long Seoul can juggle strategic ties with Washington and economic ties with Beijing.

Security experts insist that South Korea must maintain this balance.

“Moving toward China economically and culturally is fine, but moving toward China strategically means being subservient,” said Kim Byung-ki of Korea University’s Security Policy Forum. “The only reason we have an independent country is the security alliance with the U.S.”

Song Young-soon, a congresswoman with the right-wing Liberty Forward Party, agreed, noting the economic benefits of Japan’s security relationship with the U.S.

“After the collapse of the USSR, Japan pondered if they should reinforce cooperation with the U.S. or reinforce their own forces,” she said. “They decided to make a much stronger security alliance with U.S., so they spend less on their own military and the U.S. puts them under their strategic umbrella.”

Korea will have to go through a similar process, Ms. Song added.

Still, South Korea’s left wing maintains an undercurrent of anti-Americanism, with Jeju, in particular, providing grist for their umbrage. Before the outbreak of the Korean War, South Korean forces, bolstered by U.S. military advisers, ruthlessly put down a left-wing uprising on the picturesque island. An estimated 30,000 islanders were killed, and some Jeju historians double that number.

In recognition of its grim history, Jeju officially has been dubbed “the Island of Peace,” further fueling protests by demonstrators arguing that a naval base is inappropriate on a “peaceful” territory

And Jeju islanders have significant reasons for prioritizing relations with their Yellow Sea neighbor, as they already are undergoing a kind of Chinese invasion.

According to statistics from the Jeju Tourism Association in September, the number of Chinese tourists stood at 325,393 in the first eight months of the year, up 17.1 percent from the same period last year.

What’s more, a survey by China’s Global Times ranks Jeju with Hawaii and the Maldives as the top three most-popular islands for Chinese tourists.

Currently, a group of 1,400 Chinese travel agents are touring the island at the invitation of local authorities, who offer visa-free travel to Chinese tourists.

The South Korean navy said Jeju’s tourism offerings will be strengthened, not diminished, by the new base.

The port’s civilian facilities will be able to accommodate ocean liners of up to 150,000 tons, compared with the island’s current wharves, which can handle vessels of up to 80,000 tons.

The navy also was keen to state that it has undertaken environmental surveys around the base site, including measures of endangered crabs and toads.

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