On July 5, South Korea’s Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings against the Ministry of National Defense for proceeding with construction of a naval base on Jeju Island without an environmental impact assessment (EIA). It also ruled that the governor of Jeju had the authority to change the designation of absolute preservation areas. This ruling wasn’t just a major blow to residents of Gangjeong village where the navy base is being built but also to the many voiceless marine organisms. As you read this, massive caissons the size of four-story buildings are about to drop on soft coral reefs, forever destroying local marine ecosystems home to several endangered species.
Although the villagers’ hopes of winning in a retrial in Seoul’s High Court are slim, they have a golden opportunity to influence the court of public opinion by garnering the support of thousands of environmentalists worldwide. This upcoming September the world’s largest and most important environmental conservation event, the World Conservation Congress (WCC), will take place at Jungmun Resort, just four miles from Gangjeong.
Yet the organizers of the Congress, the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have cowered before the Lee Myung Bak administration, conceding in an official statement that the government “has a responsibility for its own national security, particularly given geopolitical sensitivities in its region.”
Not only have national security interests blinded South Korea’s justice system, they appear to have silenced the world’s largest and oldest environmental organization from taking a more principled stand to protect nature and traditional livelihoods.
Destroying Environments and Livelihoods
Jeju Island is 80 miles off the coast of the Korean peninsula. A New Seven Wonders of Nature, Jeju Island is home to the greatest number of UNESCO geoparks in the world, as well as several UNESCO world heritage sites and biosphere reserves, including Beom Islet (Tiger Isle), only a mile from where the naval base is being constructed.
Gangjeong itself is a 450-year-old village on the southern coast of the island. Lava rock walls line the streets of this farming community where tangerine groves, apricot orchards, and fig trees grow abundantly. Along Gangjeong’s coastline—where fresh spring water meets the sea—is a contiguous lava rock affectionately called Gureombi. This rare marine ecosystem—the only rocky wetland on Jeju Island—is home to several endangered species and soft coral reefs. Of the 132 coral species in Korea, 92 species are found in Jeju, and 66 in this area. These waters have provided a meaningful livelihood for generations of fishermen and Jeju’s famous women sea divers, haenyo.
In 2004, the ROK Ministry of Environment and Culture designated the area, including Tiger Isle, a protected area and several species Nature Monuments. In 2006, the area around Tiger Isle became a Marine Provincial Park, an absolute preservation area in which nothing could be built or developed, including a navy base. In 2006, Gangjeong was designated as an “Ecological Excellent Village”, in 2007 the Absolute Coastal Retention Area, and in 2008 a Natural Park.
Despite all these government designations and protected status, Gangjeong became the site the Navy and the government selected for the naval base, which will berth up to 20 warships with Aegis Missile Defense capability. Contrary to South Korean government propaganda that villagers supported the construction of the base, in an April 2007 referendum, 94 percent voted against the base. Since then, villagers have used every democratic means—from direct nonviolent action to filing lawsuits—to stop construction, only to be beaten, fined and jailed. In March, military contractors Samsung and Daelim began blasting the lava rock coastline and dredging the ocean floor.
Incomplete Environmental Impact Assessment
In 2009, the Mayor of Gangjeong and 437 villagers sued the Minister of Defense for granting permission to begin the naval base construction before the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was completed. The lower courts agreed, voiding the construction plans. The Navy appealed, but even while the case was still being considered, the military began base construction in March 2010.
After a suit by villagers, the Navy finally conducted an EIA, an incomplete one. The Korean Federation of Environmental Movements informed the Navy that several endangered species failed to make it into the report, including the narrow-mouth toad (Kaloula borealis), the red-foot crab (Sesarma intermedium), and Jeju fresh water shrimp (Caridina denticulate keunbaei).
In response, the government agreed to transport these species to a new habitat. According to the Navy FAQ page, 322 crabs were transplanted to three different locales, 5,300 freshwater shrimp were transplanted to a creek, and 900 narrow-mouth toads moved to a park in Jeju City. “My feeling from what I have read is that they did not mark the animals, and relocating 900 endangered frogs, for example, would be time consuming and more expensive,” says a leading environmental scientist who asked to remain anonymous. “I am almost certain they did not do that but I could be wrong.”
The Conservation Buck Stops With Militarism
As the world’s environmentalists convene at the Jungmun resort minutes away from Gangjeong, villagers are hopeful that the collective power of the world’s leading conservationists can halt the base construction. Yet the IUCN, the organizers of the World Conservation Congress, has so far sheepishly toed the government line.
In response to criticism that it is holding the WCC on Jeju Island despite the ecological destruction caused by its host government, the IUCN responded in its official statement, “We trust that the Korean government has complied with all relevant domestic laws in planning and developing this port.” For one, trusting doesn’t seem to be a very rigorous process for the world’s largest and oldest environmental organization. The IUCN should practice what it preaches—taking positions based on a thorough scientific review and remaining neutral until all the facts are gathered. Yet this statement blindly endorses the South Korean government’s propaganda. For example, the IUCN statement calls the naval base a civilian “port,” which villagers have argued is a Navy tactic to garner acceptance of the base.
John Kidd, director of global communications for the IUCN, clarified that, “In selecting a Congress host country, IUCN reviews the overall environmental track record of a country and not specific issues or areas.” But South Korean environmental organizations disagree. In an open letter to the IUCN, 55 leading environmental NGOs in South Korea write, “the Congress gravely neglects or misrepresents environmental and social conflicts in the host country.” It goes on to explain why: “Because the Congress is financed by the Lee Myung-Bak administration and sponsored by industrial conglomerates, there is growing public concern that the WCC is promoting policies of the Lee administration without examining whether they are truly designed to preserve the environment.”
In another open letter to the IUCN (disclosure: one of us helped co-author), several prominent environmental, NGO and academic leaders from around the world call upon the IUCN to relocate its meeting to another site that aligns with the organization’s mission. “Holding a conference in the face of such nearby, ongoing devastation, would destroy the credibility of IUCN, and be an eternal embarrassment for all participants at the meeting.” It calls on the IUCN to call upon the government to stop the base construction or move its Congress to another site more aligned with its mission.
In the official statement about the naval base, the “IUCN stands ready to offer technical assistance to the Korean government to help ensure the development is as environmentally sustainable as possible.” Kidd further clarified that, “IUCN has published guidelines on military developments, for example peacetime defence planning and military installations in protected areas such as national parks and world Heritage sites.” In other words, IUCN offers best environmental management practices for the world’s most toxic, polluting and undemocratic institutions: the military.
Instead, the IUCN should challenge the base and relocate its upcoming congress as a protest against the base construction.
Military Arms Race
The Jeju naval base has a specific purpose in the East Asia arms race and securing South Korean and US overseas interests. Launched in February 2010, the South Korean Maritime Task Flotilla 7 consists of two AEGIS-equipped destroyers and six smaller multipurpose destroyers. This new task flotilla is part of South Korea’s ambition, strongly supported and encouraged by the United States, to build a blue water fleet to become a regional and global military and economic powerhouse. Once the Gangjeong naval base is complete, the flotilla will be headquartered there. A key task for the flotilla is to protect South Korean trade routes in an increasingly tense and unsustainable East Asian race for access to the world’s natural resources. South Korea’s trade-reliant economy is highly vulnerable—it imports 95 percent of its energy and industrial raw materials from overseas, and 99.7 percent of Korea’s trade is conducted via sea routes. South Korea is already one of the most energy intensive economies in the OECD, and the government has decided to sustain its economic growth by heavily investing in securing overseas oil fields, mines, and food resources.
Gangjeong’s location provides a strategic vantage point for U.S. and South Korean naval interventions in the East and South China Sea, two geopolitical hotspots because of its economic importance as sea trade routes in the volatile resource race in East Asia. The Korea Herald, in a pro-base editorial on July 8, wrote that “the base has become strategically much more important than in 2005. Tensions are rising in Northeast Asia as major players are eager to beef up their sea power amid growing competition over maritime territory and natural resources in deep water.” Thus a key peacetime activity of the Gangjeong based fleet will be to provide military support for Korea’s overseas resource extraction activities.
The naval base therefore not only destroys local ecosystems and livelihoods in Gangjeong. It is a strategic piece in the environmentally destructive global race for resources that creates military tensions and conflicts around the world. The World Conservation Congress provides a critical opportunity for Gangjeong villagers to garner the solidarity of the world’s leading environmental actors. It also presents a chance for the IUCN and its membership to challenge and confront militarism in its efforts to protect and conserve nature.
*Christine Ahn is the Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute and an advisor to the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island. Anders Riel Müller is a Research Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute and with the Institute for Food and Development Policy.