“The people who boisterously fight unfair ruling power,” are how Jeju people are described in an ancient Korean text. Today, the people of Gangjeong village on Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea, are fiercely fighting a planned navy base on their island.
Gangjeong, which means river and wells, is famous for its natural beauty and abundant fresh springs, with rare and unique species of colorful corals and has been designated a UNESCO absolute nature preserve. In the middle of this harmonious and pristine environment, the South Korean Navy began constructing a $970 million base to be completed in 2014. The naval base will accommodate 20 warships, including submarines, and two 15,000-ton Aegis destroyers. The South Korean Navy says the base is needed to protect Korea’s shipping lanes and the disputed submerged rock south of Jeju. Several military analysts, however, say the Aegis technology is capable of communicating with the US satellite system and is really intended to connect Jeju with the expanding US missile defense system to contain China’s emerging power. This is further substantiated by the fact that even the Pentagon has verified that the Aegis missile defense system cannot protect most of South Korea from North Korea’s low flying Taepodong ballistic missiles.
On Aug 6, 2007, just three months after it was selected as the site of the naval base, Gangjeong village held a referendum. Of 1,050 registered voters, 725 people participated. An overwhelming 94% voted against the navy base. The vote, however, was ignored by the central government in Seoul and the Governor of Jeju. Since then, the village mayor Dong-kyun Kang has steadfastly led a non-violent struggle against the naval base.
At dusk on September 2nd, 2011, hundreds of police, shipped in from the mainland, raided Gangjeong village in full riot gear arresting more than 35 protesters. As villagers and activists moved to try and block the police, construction workers completed the last 200 meters of fencing that completely shut out villagers from their beloved farmland and coastline.
As feelings of defeat settled in among the villagers and activists who have been waging a fierce nonviolent resistance for four long years against the naval base construction, a miracle appeared.
Two days after the police raid, a renowned archaeologist named Pyeong-woo Hwang (translated as ‘Peace Rain’ in Korean), director of the Korean Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, arrived in Gangjeong village bearing news that ancient relics had been discovered in the area where the navy was constructing the base. Director Hwang explained that the Jung Duk three-way intersection that the Navy had just sealed off with the fence shows evidence of round dwellings possibly stretching far back into the beginning of Jeju civilization to the prehistoric Bronze era (~1000-2000 BC). Archeologists also discovered near the port a house foundation belonging to the late Choseon period (~1800-1900). Hwang explained that this discovery reveals that people have continuously inhabited this village and the surrounding area since the Bronze era.
On September 11th, I interviewed Director Hwang about the significance of this discovery.
Imok Cha: When did you first discover the Gangjeong relics?
Pyeong-woo Hwang: I have been following Gangjeong since it was designated as the site for a Navy base in 2007. During the excavation research, I phoned several colleagues on the Jeju Cultural Treasure Institute investigation team who verified that several relics were found. Two days before the September 4th press conference, I arrived in Gangjeong but could not access the relic site because police had blocked the area. I could tell from the photos, however, that this is a very important discovery.
For several decades, I have studied archeology, art history, Korean architecture, and folk culture. When you study archeology and cultural treasures, you develop a feeling. Even before I saw the photos, I just knew, but after I saw the photos, I realized that these are really important relics. Sometimes experts can tell the relics’ significance by just looking at the photos. When more excavation is done, we know better as we carefully see what treasures will be uncovered.
I believe Gangjeong is an archeologically and culturally important place. Gangjeong village is mentioned in an archeology book written by Professor Chungkye Lee of Young Nam University in Dae Gu. Some 20 years ago, while Professor Lee was teaching at Jeju University and conducting field research, he published Jeju Archeology Research in which he wrote that Gangjeong village is rich in cultural relics. When Gangjeong was chosen as the Navy base site in 2007, Lee was a member of the Cultural Heritage Administration and predicted that relics would be uncovered and therefore research should be thoroughly conducted.
IC: What has been discovered?
Pyeong-woo Hwang: Near the Jung Duk three-way intersection and the main gate are round dwellings presumed to be from the Bronze period. During settlements in that era, people dug big round holes of about 1.5 meters deep in the ground because it was warmer at this depth. They then erected tent-like or similar structure over it to live in. Near the port in Gangjeong, archeologists discovered a late Choseon period house foundation with holes made for house columns.
IC: How old are the Bronze period relics?
Pyeong-woo Hwang: The Bronze period is thought to be around 2000 BC, and the Neolithic period around 7000 BC. The Choseon era was from 1340-1900. In archeology, you cannot count years in absolute terms. It is all very old.
IC: Can you explain the way the investigation is being carried out?
Pyeong-woo Hwang: The investigation of Navy base was assigned to the Jeju Cultural Heritage Research Institute, a private company authorized by the government. The company conducts research, but also needs to make profit. Although the site is one single project, they have divided the investigation into four sections. They first investigated the section nearest Gurumbi rock, and when the Jeju Cultural Heritage Research Institute reported that no relics were found there, the Navy obtained a permit for construction in this area from the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea.
Investigating this area by four sections is a misinterpretation of the cultural protection law. For example, this kind of division is allowed for multiple apartment building projects in which different construction companies are building in different areas or new city development projects. This kind of division should not be applied to a single project like this Navy base. I am suspicious of this. This means that they knew where the relics are. Then they chose the area that is least likely to yield relics, farthest away from the village, near the rocks, and started to investigate that area first. This is a strategy to push ahead with the construction and then later say, “What can we do? We have already built so much.”
The Advisory Committee overseeing the investigation is composed of all government officials, including the director of the Jeju National Museum. One would presume that the director of a museum is an independent scholar, but in fact, this is a government position. Another person on the Advisory Committee is a director of the Cultural Heritage Administration inspection division who monitors cultural treasures when they go overseas. He is not even an archeologist. The review meeting took place with three Navy officials in attendance. I have seen a photo of three navy officers standing with their arms crossed in a meeting. How can you determine the value of the relics objectively under this scenario?
Only 10-20% of the area has been investigated. The construction has to stop and detailed research has to be done. The area of research has to be expanded. It is as if only the head and shoulder have been excavated. If we dig more important treasures will likely be uncovered.
Gangjeong village is recorded in the Choseon period encyclopedia Sin Dong Guk Yoe Ji Seung Ram (New East Nation Geography, 1530). Because of its clean water, rice cultivation was possible in Gangjeong whereas most of Jeju farming is based on other agricultural produce. People who had less money earned it from the sea.
Nearly 1,000 years ago, Jeju had erected stonewalls called Hwan Hae Jang Sung (Long Sea Wall) that surrounded the entire island to fight against Mongol and other outside invaders. Some of these stonewalls still remain. Jeju people prayed and performed rituals at sea because they earned living from the sea. They went out on boats, and many died at sea. They prayed for luck. There are thousands of shrines. Gurumbi rock was a place of ritual. This is not well researched.
Not only must archeological research be conducted, but folk cultural and underwater research must also be done. Since the late Choseon period (1700-1900) relics were found near the port. There must also be other artifacts, including fishing gears and tools, which could tell us about fishermen’s lives 200-300 years ago.
The sea surrounding Gangjeong has been recognized by UNESCO as a nature preserve because of its unique biodiversity. There are soft corals that are found only in this area of nearby Tiger Island and Moon Island. Even the government had designated this area for preservation because the coral are so well preserved. Approximately 20 years ago, I went under water in a commercial submarine that transported some 50 people to see the corals. The Navy says that the base is 1.2 km away from the UNESCO preserve area. It is estimated that 1 km is required for a buffer zone to protect the designed area, which leaves only 200 meters. How can you say that because there is 200 meters distance from the protected area that it is safe to operate massive Navy ships? Underwater, 200 meters is virtually meaningless. You cannot draw a line underwater. When you are dealing with the natural environment, measuring just the distance is not useful, even 20 km would not be sufficient. Because South Korea is paying huge sums of money and membership fees to UNESCO, this institution has become more political, ignoring illegal activities and not listening to cultural and environmental voices.
IC: You said that the fence installed during the September 2nd police raid at the Jung Duk three-way intersection is illegal. Can you elaborate?
Pyeong-woo Hwang: The fence was constructed along the side and behind where Ae-ja Hyun, the former Jeju assemblywoman is doing a sit-in protest at the Jung Duk three-way intersection. The relics are very close to where she is sitting, and the posts are installed within 1 meter of the Bronze period relics. This is illegal. If posts are necessary, they must be erected extremely carefully, one by one, with the inspection and advice of the research team not to damage buried relics. If you were to excavate where the assemblywoman is sitting, we would probably find many more relics.
IC: Who has the power to stop the construction?
Pyeong-woo Hwang: The current head of the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, Deputy Minister Chan Kim has the power to order the Navy to stop the construction. The Advisory Committee would decide on the value of the relics. Kwang-sik Choi, the former Deputy Minister of the Cultural Heritage Administration, authorized the construction to begin. Now he has been promoted to become the Minister of Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea. There will be a hearing on his appointment by a subcommittee of 17 Assembly members on September 15th. The opposition party will question him regarding the authority he granted the Navy to begin construction.
The Lawyers for Democratic Society have sued the Navy Chief of Staff Seong-chan Kim, the Jeju Navy base business leader Eun-guk Lee, and the former and current Deputy Ministers of Cultural Heritage Administration, Kwang-sik Choi and Chan Kim, for violating the Cultural Property Protection Law. Assemblywoman Ae-ja Hyun continues her sit-in protest at the Jung Duk three way intersection — which has gone on for more than 50 days now. Seven people, including Gangjeong Mayor Kang, have been imprisoned for more than 20 days for “obstructing business.”
In the mean time, within days of the police raid, drilling machines are working full time on Gurumbi, the ancient coastline lava rock, shattering it into thousands of pieces to make roads. The Mayor of Seogwipo has ordered the immediate removal of all banners, tents, and other protest structures. Villagers are afraid of another impending clash with the police force.
Fortunately, more and more mainland Koreans are heading to Gangjeong on Hope planes, Hope boats, Hope buses, and Hope bicycles. Artists are painting on the metal fences, building sculptures, making music, documentaries, and even uploading short films of the struggle on YouTube. Supporters from around the world have been sending support messages that are made into banners and hung along the road. The protestors’ voices are getting louder and louder.
Can the Navy justify severing people from their ancestral land and forever burying the history of Jeju civilization under cement, against the people’s will?
*Imok Cha, M.D. is a San Francisco-based physician specializing in cancer diagnosis and an advisory committee member of the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island.