[Interview] Catholic bishop reflects on the tumultuous story of Jeju

Posted on : 2012-03-09 11:46 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju Correspondent 

“As the general election draws closer, you get the feeling that the government is trying to make the building of the Jeju naval base into something set in stone before it can be affected by the election result. It‘s really sad and disappointing to see it being pushed so one-sidedly, without paying any attention to people’s voices.”

Peter Kang Woo-il, bishop in Jeju and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, had words of harsh criticism Thursday for the government’s blasting of the Gureombi Rock coast in Seogwipo’s Gangjeong village the day before.

Speaking with the Hankyoreh at the Jeju diocese, the bishop said, “When the National Assembly cut the Jeju naval base construction budget by 96% late last year, it was voicing the legislature‘s view that there were too many problems with the design and other aspects, and that construction should not be carried out until it had been reexamined.

”I can’t understand why the government is refusing to communicate with the people and making these decisions,“ the bishop added. ”We’re not living under a dictatorship.“

He went on to say, ”The central government has recognized the administrative autonomy and independence of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province. It is unacceptable for them to simply disregard it when the governor, provincial council head, and even the provincial ruling and opposition party chairs have expressed the view that we should hold off for now on the construction to ensure a fair reexamination.“

The bishop continued, ”The government is acting like it hasn’t heard and going ahead with what it‘s calling a ‘national project’ but the argument that a project is justified simply because the state is carrying it out is something you would have expected in the era of totalitarianism. In a democratic government, you can even stop or turn back on a national project you’ve started if there is resistance from citizens or objections from a lot of people.

“It‘s a grave miscalculation for 99% of South Koreans to think they can disregard the population of Jeju because it’s only one percent of the whole,” he added.

Kang said the debate over the naval base was “an issue connected with all of the Republic of Korea, and general peace in Northeast Asia.”

He added that after the Roh Moo-hyun administration pushed the base’s construction, he sent a letter to Roh informing him that he had started poorly.

“At the time, we had heard indirectly that the construction of the Jeju naval base was not a matter the South Korean government could decide on by itself,” Kang recalled. “So we became more and more convinced that this was a truly unacceptable project.”

Kang pointed to the missteps of that administration, noting that he asked Roh on numerous occasions to cancel the building of the base, which was not suited to Jeju, the so-called “Island of World Peace.”

“I met with Prime Ministers and all that, but no one listened,” Kang said.

But he also criticized the recent charges coming from the New Frontier Party and conservative press, who are accusing the opposition of changing their position on the issue. According to Kang, the charges are just nit-picking.

“People who were a part of the last administration admitted that it was wrong and said we should go back to square one with the Jeju naval base issue,” he explained. “Any administration could make mistakes. It would be better for all administrations to reflect on their mistakes after time has passed, and go back to where they should be.

In August and September of 2011, Democratic United Party lawmaker Jeong Dong-young and senior adviser Moon Jae-in, both former senior officials in the Roh Moo-hyun administration, apologized in Jeju for their decision to construct the base. “This construction was planned under our administration, as I look back on it, I see that it was a mistake.”

“It’s a matter of people who were a part of the Roh Moo-hyun administration seeing reality and changing their stance, not one of saying which administration was right and which one was wrong,” Kang added.

Regarding recent activity in Jeju over the base, which is being developed as a combined military facility and civilian tourism port, Kang said that Jeju governor Woo Keun-min “is trying as an administrator to solve the problem in the way that will be best for Jeju’s future.”

“I understand what he is doing,” he added.

At the same time, Kang stressed, “Our position differs from the administrator’s. It is essential that the naval base plan be abandoned, for the sake of Jeju residents and the whole of the Republic of Korea.”

When asked about the relatively small scale of the opposition movement among island and Gangjeong residents, Kang said, “I think that even their ability to get angry over this has been crushed by the sense of abandonment by the central government when Jeju was a place of exile in the past, and the sense of shame over the lack of any kind of healing or apology process for this from the government for the past sixty years.”

“At the same time, they have been stripped of their freedom, since most of the residents who actively protested against the naval base were arrested or charged and fined and would have to pay millions of won if they showed their face again,” Kang added.

Kang also had some words about the sense of frustration experienced by Gangjeong villagers as the base construction effort goes ahead without their input.

“Many Jeju residents, not just those in Gangjeong Village, feel disillusioned with the South Korean government,” he said. “It’s sort of like the sadness they felt after the April 3 uprising in 1948, that sense of being utterly trampled. The recent string of events most likely feels the same as they felt after April 3. The April 3 uprising took place in 1948 when Jeju police fired on residents holding a demonstration marking the end of Japanese rule in Korea. The national army was eventually sent in to suppress the uprising and between 14,000 and 60,000 people were killed.

Kang said, “Islanders are only one percent of the population. It’s natural for them to be stomped on.”


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