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Korea’s ‘Peace Island’ draws crowds oblivious to COVID or North Korea threat

Flights to the South Korean resort island province of Jeju, 60 miles off the Korean peninsula’s southern tip, are almost fully booked and hotels quickly run out of room. Crowds surge through the island’s only airport on the way to hiking, golfing, horseback-riding, caving, gazing from craggy cliffs and sandy beaches or peering through the clouds at snow-covered Mount Halla, South Korea’s highest peak, looming 1,947 meters above orchards sparkling with oranges and tangerines in the fall harvest season.

In the crush of visitors to Jeju, one sight that’s not on most itineraries is a Korean naval base on the island’s south coast. It’s built for warships as well as cruises for Chinese tourists, but the Chinese aren’t coming. China doesn’t like either the base or a U.S. Army super-missile complex on the mainland 200 miles south of Seoul. China’s leaders don’t believe American assurances that the missiles are solely for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, against the threat of high-flying North Korean missiles.

Either way, South Korea is serious about building up defenses against North Korea and its ally China, even as the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, intensifies his campaign for a “declaration” that the Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953, is really over. Koreans, worried as COVID-19 sets new national records, remain largely uninterested in the whole idea. A visit to Seoul last week by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed the paradox of Korea’s military aspirations versus Moon’s drive for reconciliation.

If Moon still dreams of an end-of-war declaration by the U.S., China and the two Koreas before his five-year term ends with the election of a new president on March 9, the show of camaraderie between Austin and South Korea’s defense minister, Suh Wook, didn’t help. The impending shift of operational control from U.S. to South Korean command in wartime, Suh said, shows “the value of the ROK-U.S. alliance to the entire world.”

Austin said he and Suh also talked about beefing up defenses against “a full range of threats.” They approved “new strategic planning guidance” while the North continues “to advance its missile and weapons programs, which is increasingly destabilizing for regional security.”  

Those words were hardly antithetical to Moon’s policies. While pleading for all sides to join hands for peace, Moon has appeared downright hawkish when it comes to fortifying South Korea’s defenses. Defying charges that he’s pro-North, he arrived in the backseat of a Korean-made fighter jet at a recent exhibition of weaponry. “The Republic of Korea,” he said, “seeks to build smart and strong armed forces based on state-of-the-art technology.” South Korea’s defense budget for next year should reach $47.6 billion, up 4.5 percent from this year, with emphasis on mid-range missiles and even a nuclear-powered submarine to counter the threat of the North’s large submarine fleet.  

Moon’s fight-talk strategy flies in the face of anti-base protests led by a Catholic priest who once marshalled activists in a campaign to block construction of the Jeju base built mainly for patrol boats and visiting destroyers. Now that it’s fully operational, signs denouncing the base are still visible on nearby walls, but once-daily protests outside the main gate have died out.

Jeju is officially an “island of peace,” a reminder of a bloody uprising that broke out on April 3, 1948. Police and army soldiers, blaming “communists” for the revolt, massacred entire villages and forest hideouts on the island after Syngman Rhee emerged as South Korea’s first president on Aug. 15, 1948, third anniversary of the Japanese surrender after 35 years of colonial rule. The revolt, in which at least 30,000 people were killed by official count, simmered on even as North Korean forces invaded the South in June 1950.

It’s just as easy to forget the sad saga of the Jeju revolt as it is to skip over the news about 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 quest for “reparations” from the U.S. for having been in charge of South Korean forces. He envisions organizing a “peace cruise” from Jeju to the North Korean port of Wonsan where the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, maintains a lavish villa and is masterminding construction of a tourist complex. That’s a remote prospect, considering that Kim is holding visitors to almost none during the pandemic.  

South Korea also is renewing constraints, 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, arrivals and departures last year exceeded 21 million, making the airport the world’s 28th busiest. Nearly 11 million people, most of them Koreans, arrived in the first 11 months of this year, according to the Jeju Tourist Organization.

In the rush for fun, thousands flock to the island’s 30 golf courses. Considering the forests that were cut down to make way for them, they’re almost as controversial as the destruction of marine breeding grounds on which to build the naval base. Not many sign up for what’s called a “dark tour” of sites of 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 at the park features scenes of the uprising and a video reviewing the record of the killing.

On a larger scale, Moon’s persistent calls for Korean War foes to sign a paper testifying that the war is over appears as a massive distraction. More to the point, as reported by Janes Defense Weekly, the ministry of national defense has outlined a vast “force modernization” program that calls for much improved air defense, surveillance satellites 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 brandish nukes and missiles but can do nothing without the certainty of China’s support. As Minister Suh put it, he and Secretary Austin “agreed to explore cooperation means to connect our New Southern Policy and the U.S.-Indo-Pacific strategy.” He said they “agreed on the importance of ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation for responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.”

Those fighting words should rule out any formal Korean War agreement while vacationing crowds get away from fears of COVID and the prospect of Korean War II.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags #coronavirus COVID-19 Jeju Island Kim Jong Un Lloyd Austin Moon Jae-in North Korea–South Korea relations South Korea Suh Wook

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