Korea’s “Peace Island” attracts crowds unaware of the threat posed by COVID or North Korea
Flights to the South Korean holiday island province of Jeju, which is 60 miles off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, are almost fully booked and hotels run out quickly. Crowds of people flock through the island’s only airport en route to hiking, golfing, horseback riding, caving, gazing at rugged cliffs and sandy beaches, or gazing through the clouds at snow-capped Mount Halla, South Korea’s highest peak towering 1,947 meters above orchards sparkling with oranges and mandarins in the autumn harvest season.
In the crowd of visitors to Jeju, one attraction that is not on most travel routes is a Korean naval base on the south coast of the island. It’s built for both warships and cruises for Chinese tourists, but the Chinese aren’t coming. China doesn’t like the US Army base or a super-missile complex on the mainland 200 miles south of Seoul. China’s leaders do not believe in American assurances that the missiles are intended solely for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense THAAD against the threat of high-flying North Korean missiles.
In any case, South Korea is serious about building a defense against North Korea and its ally China, even though the President of the South, Moon Jae-in, is stepping up his campaign for a “declaration” that the Korean War ended in a ceasefire in 1953 really over. Koreans, concerned that COVID-19 is setting new national records, remain largely disinterested in the whole idea. A visit from the US Secretary of Defense to Seoul last week Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security – USA, Israeli defense chiefs discuss Iran confirmed the paradox of Korea’s military aspirations versus Moon’s quest for reconciliation.
If Moon dreams of an end-of-war declaration by the US, China and the two Koreas before his five-year term ends with the election of a new president on March 9, the camaraderie between Austin and South Korea’s Secretary of Defense, Suh Wook, has not helped. The imminent shift of operational control from the US to the South Korean command in wartime, said Suh, shows “the value of the ROK-US alliance for the whole world”.
Austin said he and Suh also talked about stepping up defenses against “a whole range of threats”. They approved “new strategic planning guidelines” while the North “pushes ahead with its missile and weapons programs that are increasingly destabilizing regional security”.
These words hardly contradicted Moon’s policies. While he urged all sides to join hands for peace, Moon seemed downright hawkish when it came to strengthening the defense of South Korea. He defied the charge that he was for the north and ended up in the back seat of a Korean fighter jet at a weapons exhibition. “The Republic of Korea,” he said, “aims to build intelligent and strong armed forces based on cutting-edge technology.” South Korea’s defense budget for next year should reach $ 47.6 billion, 4.5 percent more than this year, with an emphasis on medium-range missiles and even a nuclear powered submarine to counter the threat posed by the north’s large submarine fleet.
Moon’s fight-talk strategy has failed amid protests against the base, led by a Catholic priest who once set activists in a campaign against the construction of the Jeju base, which was built primarily for patrol boats and visiting destroyers. Now that it’s fully functional, signs can still be seen on the nearby walls denouncing the base, but the once-daily protests outside the main gate have subsided.
Jeju is officially an “Island of Peace”, a reminder of a bloody uprising that broke out on April 3, 1948. Police and army soldiers who blamed “communists” for the revolt massacred entire villages and forest hiding spots on the island after Syngman Rhee emerged as South Korea’s first president on August 15, 1948, the third anniversary of Japan’s surrender after 35 years of colonial rule. The revolt, which officially killed at least 30,000 people, simmered when North Korean troops marched south in June 1950.
The sad story of the Jeju Revolt is as easy to forget as the news of Moon’s search for a peace deal with the North. At Jeju University, retired professor Ko Chang-hoon keeps the flame alive as he leads a search for “reparations” from the US for the command of the South Korean armed forces. He envisions organizing a “peace cruise” from Jeju to the North Korean port of Wonsan, where the northern leader, Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea Bans Leather Coats After Kim Starts A New Fashion Trend Belarus and Russia Have to Solve the Migrant Crisis on Their Own North Korea’s Kim appears publicly for the first time this month MORE, maintains a spacious villa and is in charge of the construction of a tourist complex. That’s a distant prospect considering that Kim is holding almost no visitors during the pandemic.
South Korea is also renewing restrictions and enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing regulations, but Jeju reports far fewer cases than the country’s major cities. With 36 take-offs and landings per hour, the number of arrivals and departures exceeded 21 million last year, making the airport the 28th busiest airport in the world. Almost 11 million people, most of them Koreans, came in the first 11 months of this year, according to the Jeju Tourist Organization.
Thousands flock to the island’s 30 golf courses in a rush for fun. Given the cleared forests, they are almost as controversial as the destruction of marine breeding grounds on which the naval base is to be built. Not many sign up for a so-called “dark tour” to massacres or visit the Peace Park, where obelisks display the names of more than 15,000 Jeju citizens who died in the revolt. A museum in the park shows scenes of the riot and a video reviewing the records of the murder.
On a larger scale, Moon’s persistent calls for the enemies of the Korean War to sign a document attesting that the war is over seem like a massive distraction. More specifically, as Jane’s Defense Weekly reports, the Department of National Defense has devised a major force modernization program that requires greatly improved air defense, surveillance satellite communications, tanks, Lockheed F-35 fighters and guided missile frigates.
In Seoul, the mood of the American and South Korean defense chiefs left no doubt that China remains the immediate threat. Kim Jong Un may wield atomic bombs and missiles, but he cannot do anything without the certainty of China’s support. As Minister Suh put it, he and Secretary of State Austin agreed to “explore opportunities for cooperation to link our New South Policy and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy”. He said they agreed on the importance of the Republic of Korea-US trilateral security cooperation with Japan in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
These arguing words should rule out any formal agreement on the Korean War as the tourist crowds escape fears of COVID and the prospect of a second Korean War.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years and has focused much of his career on conflicts in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a freelance correspondent for North and South Korea. He is the author of several books on Asian affairs.