The proposed building of a new naval base on Jeju Island has divided politicians, activists and religious leaders since the plan was announced many years ago.
For the people of Gangjeong village, who live on the island, the issue has shattered the idyllic peace of the island.
For two small business owners, it has pitted store against store in a war for patrons whose political sympathies now dictate where they shop.
Kosa Mart and Yuseong Mart stand opposite each other on a narrow street in Gangjeong. Their respective owners also stand on opposite divides in the contentious battle over the naval base.
The owner of Kosa Mart has steadfastly condemned the naval base, and villagers who agree with him have stopped patronizing the Yuseong Mart, whose owner has no objection to the new base.
“Our village used to be very peaceful,” says Kang Bong-kyun, mayor of Gangjeong.
“But residents have become divided against each other since the government started construction of the naval base.”
The government announced plans to build the base on Jeju Island in 2002, with Gangjeong village selected as the site in 2007.
Construction began three years ago but has sparked several protests from villagers and environmental activists who see the project as a threat to the natural environment of the island.
The proposed 400,000 sq m base, expected to be completed by 2014, is to be home to a new fleet of destroyers that would patrol the East China Sea between China and Japan.
The estimated 2,000 residents of the island, mostly fishermen and fruit farmers, have fallen on either side of the issue. Those in favor of the project say the naval base will bring economic benefits. Opponents argue that the base will damage the fragile natural habitats of the island.
Tensions remain high among villagers, whose support or rejection of the base has caused rifts.
“In some families, family members conduct ancestral rites separately and even do not eat meals together,” said village head Kang.
“We will never get along well if the construction does not stop.”
Yoon Tea-jung, former village head who supports the base, says he fears for his safety.
“I cannot go out freely for fear of being bullied by opponents. In fact, I was once beaten by them,” he said.
He added that his support forced him to step down early as village head.
Some supporters see the base as necessary for providing employment to villagers whose traditional ways of earning a living are passing away.
Hae-nyeo, or female divers, have for decades fished for shellfish, picking them by hand from the sea floor.
“They will not be able to dive deep in the near future because they are getting old,” says Yoon, adding that the base will provide alternative employment opportunities.
“Opponents should think about what the best choice is for our village.”
Construction continues on the base, and tensions remain high.
Yoon says the island village always had a strong sense of community, with everyone working together and supporting each other.
The base has shattered that communal spirit, and Yoon fears that if the project goes ahead, the damage to the community could be irreparable.
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