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Let’s hear the arguments against the Gangjeong Naval Base in Jeju-do

There was a festive gathering last Tuesday at the Old Justice pub at which supporters of the campaign against the Jeju Island naval base held a public meeting. The London-based group has already held two demonstrations against the base this year, one outside the Korean embassy and one outside the Samsung electronics shop in Tottenham Court Road (Samsung is involved in various logistical contracts relating to the construction of the base), and this evening was part of a campaign to start to spread the message more widely.

Construction in progress on the rocks outside Gangjeong Village
Construction in progress on the rocks outside Gangjeong Village (Source)

The mainstay of the evening was an introductory half hour documentary put together by Al Jazeera. The programme followed the daily lives of the protestors as they tried to obstruct the construction project or document the environmental destruction. There was rather too much repetition and not enough analysis. It had the feeling of being done to a limited budget with little obvious input from a senior editor, and with a remit to fill half an hour of programming time. Edited down to ten minutes it might have had some impact, but spun out to half an hour it outstayed its welcome. And the prospect of hearing from Noam Chomsky in the second half of the evening was not very enticing either1. The samgyeopsal in the bar next door was making me really hungry so I decided to head off during the break in search of food and get home at a sensible time rather than end up being made really grumpy by what is clearly a campaign which is important to a lot of people.

So I really didn’t get a feeling for why the issue of the naval base is one people should be interested in, which is a shame, because I’m very fond of Jeju Island. It has suffered enough under the hands of the developers and construction companies, as has much of the rest of Korea. Where once there was virgin sea shore, now there are concrete tetrapods everywhere. But I did not get a feeling for why I should be concerned about this particular construction project.

So here’s some advice for going about publicising the issues around the Gangjeong naval base. Some of the suggestions are observations on the Al Jazeera documentary and comments made by some of the campaigners during course of the evening, others relate to arguments I’d like to hear or questions I would want answered before I put on the yellow campaign T-shirt.

An installation on Gangjeong's rocks
An installation on Gangjeong’s rocks (Source)

Here goes, and please take these in the spirit they were meant, as constructive suggestions for building a better case to convince an uninformed and / or possibly sceptical audience.


Do provide plenty of analysis, explanation and background. For example:

  • Do try to provide the official government view of the reasons for building the base. And then feel free to analyse, criticise and demolish them. And if the authorities haven’t got an explanation for why the base is needed, say so.
  • In the absence of an official government party line, do try to understand why there might be valid strategic reasons why Korea might want a naval base on the South of Jeju Island (the current Wikipedia article, which seems to be drafted from very much from the conservative viewpoint, would be a good starting point). And then argue against them. If you make the point that the South coast of Jejudo is a long way from North Korea who are the South’s most obvious antagonists, make sure you don’t call the DPRK South Korea’s “Main Enemy”. DPRK stopped being that in 2004 under the Kim Dae-jung administration, though reasonably enough were reinstated as an enemy after the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeongpyeong.
  • Do try to give a bit of the history. Under whose presidency was the decision to build the base? What were the reasons for that decision? How did the navy come to own the land on which the base is being built and is the ownership legal or not? What alternative sites were considered? Explain how the local opposition developed, and in what respects it has been ignored.
  • Do make sure that the environmental and other reasons for opposition to the base are fully laid out and explained. The Al Jazeera documentary spent far too much time following one protestor in his daily swim into the naval base construction area, and virtually no time explaining what was special about the location.
  • If the rocks on which the naval base is being built have some special historical, ecological or mythological significance, do explain what that significance is. The Gureombi rocks (구럼비 바위) near Gangjeong clearly meant something to the locals, but with no clear explanation of what this was, the documentary came close to portraying the protestors as eccentric rock-huggers.
  • If you’re going to use historical footage to provide context, do make 100% sure it’s relevant context and explain why you are using it. The documentary included footage purporting to relate to the 1948 Jeju massacre. Yes, it was terrible and created psychological scars which are still evident today2. But what was the relevance of the clip to the Gangjeong issue? The implication of the commentary seemed to be that because the US backed the Syngman Rhee government, they supported the brutal actions of Rhee’s thugs in Jeju. This may well be true (though the US was often having to restrain Rhee when it came to his eagerness to provoke the North). But were we supposed to conclude that the overruling of local opposition to the Jeju naval base was somehow equivalent to the 4:3 incident? That the US is behind it all? That the acts of the police and security guards in Gangjeong are equivalent to the murder and rape committed by Rhee’s thugs? Really, the point of the historical footage of the Jeju massacre was not made clear.3
  • If you’re going to say such things as protestor X has been “imprisoned without trial”, when X was subject to an injunction not to go anywhere near the naval base, an injunction which he promptly intentionally broke on many occasions, make it clear (if such is the case) that another trial for breach of injunction is necessary under Korean law before the offender goes to prison, and thus that the authorities have acted illegally.
  • And while on the subject of illegality, some websites which oppose the naval base claim that the construction project itself is illegal. It would be helpful to set out what laws have been broken by the authorities in constructing the base. An equal number of websites seem to claim that the protest itself is illegal. It might be helpful to disprove this, or at least make the point that natural justice justifies peaceful protest.
  • Feel free to emphasise the beauty of the area. The Al Jazeera piece didn’t really do that very well at all. A few photos like this would do:
Gangjeong Island, a photo by film director Rain Jung.
Gangjeong Island, a photo by film director Rain Jung. (Source)


Don’t assume your audience is anti-American. The audience you want to convert is just as likely to be neutral to pro-American as anti-American. Biased language will alienate a neutral audience. For example:

  • Don’t use phrases like “American expansionism” as a possible motivation behind the building of the base – after all it wasn’t American fishermen who butchered a Korean coastguard last year, and it’s not the Americans who are disputing oil exploration rights with the Vietnamese or ownership of the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines. If the Americans are behind the building of the base, fine (or not fine, depending on your viewpoint). But the word “expansionism” is loaded. Chomsky articulates the arguments well in his video.
  • Don’t put scare quotes around the word “defence” in the phrase “US missile defence system”. And probably in the same vein “so-called missile defence system” should be avoided too.
  • Don’t take it as read that your audience will accept that it’s the Americans who are behind everything when it comes to South Korea’s military. You’ll need to explain some of the background to the US-ROK military relationship including things like Operational Control agreements and the annual joint military exercises. (But think very carefully before introducing any discussion of the extent of US acquiescence / involvement in incidents like Kwangju as this will raise the emotional temperature of the argument without pushing it forward).

And maybe a final Don’t (which probably more than anything else caused me to carp at the evening):

  • Don’t expect people to listen sympathetically to a campaign (overlooking the above shortcomings) when they are hungry and the smell of freshly barbecuing samgyeopsal and bulgogi is wafting in from next door. It was really good of the Old Justice to provide some tasty snacks for the occasion, but you needed to be on the right table in order to get them!

All these dos and don’ts might seem rather tedious, but the Al Jazeera documentary fell short of anything that could be used to communicate the issues to a sceptical audience. It was fine as a vehicle to encourage the converted but only served to bore or even alienate a neutral to sceptical observer.

I’m sure the Jeju campaigners have something better up their sleeves and I encourage them to produce it.


  1. Having since watched the video, it’s much more reasonable than I was expecting. Available here. []
  2. I remember chatting last year to a Jeju-based journalist, photographer and art critic who told me, out of the blue, that he hated Americans because of the “4:3 incident”. Fortunately I was in the middle of reading Mandogi’s Ghost so I knew that he was referring to the Jeju massacre []
  3. Surfing the web since last Tuesday, I discover that possibly the rationale for showing the clip was that in January 2005 Jeju was declared an “Island of World Peace” by the Central Government, effectively as an apology for the 1948 massacre. And the argument would then be that it’s odd to build a new naval base on “Peace Island”. If that point was made by the Al-Jazeera documentary, I missed it. []

8 thoughts on “Let’s hear the arguments against the Gangjeong Naval Base in Jeju-do

  1. Han Eui-jong: This article is so important for people staging protests! For me I am supporting their movement simply because I am desperate to make people aware that the ‘ppali ppali’ lifestyle and policies should not destroy somewhere so beautiful and welll-loved by people.

    More importantly, it is a home for so many ordinary people esp hae.nyuh (hae.nyeo)s who are a symbol of hard working women without surrendering against harsh environments.

    But I do strongly believe that they have to read your comments and suggestions to make a strong case with facts and evidence.

    1. Thanks for this. I was afraid the article would come across as being against the protest. It was not intended to be. I just want to hear the arguments well articulated

  2. This is a brief (as I can get it) response to Philip’s article. The report from Al Jazeera (first broadcast in November 2011) he takes exception to can be seen here:

    The organisers of ‘Gangjeong Night’ at the Old Justice event chose the Al Jazeera report as a good introduction to an issue largely ignored by the international and Korean media. A military base on ‘The Seventh Wonder of The World’ and ‘The Island of World Peace’ should be big news. The possibility of Jeju Island being at the centre of a new arms race should concern everyone interested in Korean affairs, or simply in world peace.

    It was not our intention to deliver a lecture, but to give people some insight into the opposition to the naval base. This was done by showing the Al Jazeera piece, a round up of videos made by Gangjeong villagers themselves, and one by Korean independent media company News Tapa. In the second half of the evening we showed the analysis by Noam Chomsky that Philip links above, and picking up on Chomsky’s statement that the villagers ‘need more help from the outside’ we showed videos of demonstrations that have taken place in London and Paris.

    Inevitably in selecting videos to show, visuals are a concern. I take Philip’s point that the Al Jazeera film is short on natural beauty, but it does show life in Gangjeong village, construction work and protests on the coast and at sea. There are other reports that worth seeing but they tended to be ‘talking heads’, not best suited for this event. Interestingly the beautiful photo Philip posted of Jeju shows one of those ‘talking heads’, Weapons Analyst Matthew Hoey, bathing in a pool at the Gureombi rock. This area is now covered by hundreds of concrete tetrapods, mountains of razor wire and riot police. Matthew Hoey has given many talks on the naval base issue and the following Skype interview is I think more enlightening, less emotive, than the Al Jazeera report:

    Most observers of the naval base issue are in no doubt about US involvement in the militarisation of Jeju Island, something the BBC report does not mention. Even without Hilary Clinton’s announcement of ‘America’s Pacific Century’ and Obama description of the Asia Pacific region as a US military ‘pivot’, it would be fanciful to think of America as a disinterested onlooker.

    I don’t think it is ‘anti America’ to criticise their military expansion in the Asia Pacific, but Chomsky is correct in saying that this goes largely unquestioned in the West, so I understand why some might be surprised to hear this expressed. We also intentionally pointed out that the Aegis Missile Defence System that Jeju will eventually host is in fact an offensive first strike system with nuclear capabilities. As David Webb of Yorkshire CND (who has visited Gangjeong) says: ‘placing hundreds of missiles at the borders of other countries is not defence’. The analogy of China stationing missiles on the coast of Mexico or Candada is useful to understanding why many regard this as an extremely dangerous military confrontation.

    It’s important to note that there are many different viewpoints among ‘No Naval Base’ supporters. Some focus largely on the environmental issue, such as Robert Redford’s piece here: Some, including British Nobel Peace Prize nominee Angie Zelter, seek an end to militarism and want other means of settling disputes and sharing resources. Others, like Matthew Hoey, simply see Jeju as the wrong location in terms of national security. Still others have no issue per se with a naval base but are angered by the clandestine means used, such as the phoney vote orchestrated by the navy to claim they have villagers’ support, and lack of due process, such as the removal without notice or explanation of the ‘Absolute Preservation Order’ that should have protected Gangjeong and its coast. Many are concerned about human rights abuses such as police violence and arrests (over 500 to date) of non-violent protestors.

    Philip mentions ‘rock hugging’ like it’s a bad thing ㅋㅋㅋ! Personally I’m all for a bit of rock hugging. Another one of the ‘talking head’ videos we would have liked to have shown is this interview with Korean film critic Yang Yoon Mo, who has been imprisoned twice for protesting against the naval base, and was filmed being dragged by police and punched in the stomach while on the ground. He actually does hug the rocks in this interview:

    The militarisation of Jeju is a hugely important issue. We are pleased that people came who didn’t know about it, or like Philip remain unconvinced about the need to oppose it but nevertheless are asking pertinent questions. Sorry Philip you were tantalised by the delicious Korean food smells whilst seething at Al Jazeera. Some ate before the 7.30 starting time, and we encouraged people to order food in the 9pm break between the videos and the Skype link up with Gangjeong. This was the first of hopefully more such events, so the criticisms are useful.

    For those who oppose the Jeju naval base or want to know more, please join the Facebook group or email [email protected] to be informed about future events.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response Andrew. I’ll follow up some of those links. I look forward to future events, and I’ll make sure I eat first next time ^_^

  4. Don’t put scare quotes around the word “defence” in the phrase “US missile defence system”. And probably in the same vein “so-called missile defence system” should be avoided too.


    1. I start from the premise that we are trying to persuade as many people as possible that the Jeju Naval Base is a bad idea. And psychologically speaking, I believe that people are more likely to be persuaded by someone who shares their values, or who at least appears neutral, than by someone who has opposing values.

      By using the scare quotes, we (trivially) alienate people who don’t like this linguistic device. But far more importantly, because the use of this device signals that we are opposed to the missile defence system, we risk alienating a much larger segment of people who might think that having a system which shoots down hostile missiles is a good idea. It is not necessary to signal opposition to the missile defence system in order to establish whether the naval base is a good or bad idea. But in so doing we turn off part of our audience.

      So all in all, I think it’s best to avoid the scare quotes and try to be as dispassionate as possible in presenting all the facts and arguments.

  5. I take your considered points but of “attack” and “defence”, although polar opposites, “defence” is often the word more commonly associated with those that pursue “war”. Take the Ministry of Defence, for example. Quite an Orwellian name given our current operations.

    Whether a missile defence system is literally used in the defence of missiles or not is besides the point when their very existence that can be misconstrued as an aggressive move.

    I’m with you when you say we should be “as dispassionate as possible in presenting all the facts and arguments”. But I don’t think the use of scare quotes here is wrong. When you refer to it as a “Missile Defence System”, you’re adopting the military’s language to soften the image of something that has quite offensive political implications.

    These systems are hardly effective at doing what they’re supposed to do as well. Have you thought about trying to shoot an arrow with another arrow? They’re designed as deterrents, not effective safety nets. Ironically, introducing them encourages preemptive strikes or, worse, other Missile “Defence” Systems – ie an arms race.

    It’s MAD: Mutually Assured “Defence”.

    It’s probably a good idea with such a sensitive subject to avoid euphemisms as much as possible (here, I agree with you) and “Defence” is arguably one of them.

  6. I appreciate your comments James, and agree that to simply use the military’s nomneculture in this case would be misleading. The use of quotation marks Philip mentions is on the flyer handed out at the event. Actually it’s not easy to summarise all the issues raised by the militarisation of Jeju Island on a sheet of A5 paper, that is without using a very teeny-weeny font, I’m ahead of you James.

    Far from trivialising matters, we used a quite standard device that signals skepticism. We could have written, ‘we don’t believe Aegis is a defensive system’ but the inverted commas convey the same thought and in less space.

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