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S Korea villagers protest against Jeju naval base

Villagers in South Korea's Jeju Island are worried that they could be drawn into territorial disputes in the South China Sea due to the government's plan to set up a naval base on the island.

JEJU: As tensions continue to brew in the South China Sea, villagers in a small part of South Korea's Jeju Island are worried that they could be drawn into the territorial disputes.

That is why they are against the government's plan to set up a naval base in Gangjeong village, even though the government insists the base will help protect the country from North Korean threats and allow Seoul to respond quickly to territorial spats with its neighbours.

They have used various means of protest -- a prayer session, petitions and rallies -- to save the village and Jeju Island, which is home to several UNESCO sites.

But those sessions are quickly disrupted by riot police, and trucks are soon allowed to go in and out of construction sites again.

Since work began on the US$970 million base in early 2011, the once quiet village, which is home to about a thousand fishermen and farmers, has been turned into a battleground between police and protesters.

The demonstrations started with villagers, who argue that the base will destroy their livelihoods.

But activists from across the country and around the world have also made their way to Jeju Island show their support.

Kim Sung-hwan, a priest, said: "The purpose of the mass is to alert people passing by that this naval base is being built here illegally, and that it is nothing but a war base."

Some villagers claim the base is illegal as their views on its construction were not sought when the village chief held a vote on it in 2007.

They said only 87 residents took part.

Those who could not vote demanded a proper referendum be conducted, but it never materialised.

The base has now become such an emotional issue that it is dividing the village into those who favour the base, and those who don't.

A resident from a nearby village said some people have even stopped talking to each other, or shop at different stores to avoid one another.

She also feels that construction should stop.

"It's not going to be nice if so many foreigners and people from the mainland come here. There will be pollution too. It's nice the way it is now. But that will change with so many people,” she said.

The government says that once completed, the base will become a new attraction for Jeju Island.

Not only will it be a base for military vessels, the eco-friendly port covering about 125 acres will also host luxury cruise ships.

But activists are focusing on the 20 or so warships that will be based there, arguing that could set off a regional arms race between the United States and China, with South Korea caught in the middle.

Protesters also say the base has destroyed the environment in the area.

One road used to be the No. 7 Olle trail, part of Jeju's walking tour marking special spots known for their unspoiled beauty.

Gureombi Rock, located at the trail, has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

But the road has now been blocked off due to the construction. So instead of scenic views, visitors are now met with barbed wires and fences. 

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