16/01/2020 |

Jeju Island: further militarization of the China Sea?

By Tània Ferré García

After 29 years of dispute, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has finally announced the budget and starting date of the development of a Second Airport in the South Korean Seogwipo City, island of Jeju.

There is a common concern among activists that this project is being enforced in an undemocratic and unilateral way due to their disregard to local citizens’ interests and will. The South Korean Ministry of National Defence (MOD) already expressed its interest on planning an air force, including a fighter planes unit, based in the island in the 1970s, which was later reframed as “Southern Rescue and Search Unit” which would only be equipped with support aircrafts and not fighter planes (Sung-hee, 2019).  The size and length of the runway, which clearly exceed the civilian aviation demand of the island, are indicators of how the airport is presumably going to be used as an air force base for military purposes. Presidential candidates, such as Moon Jae-in, have already expressed their concerns and opposition against further militarization of the island.

The interest on the island lays on its geopolitical location since it has a strategic value and a key position for defence, security and economic matters.  Located in the center of Northeast Asia, Jeju acts as a nexus between the South Sea, East China Sea as well as South China Sea and, thus, South Korea, China and Japan. In light of the increased regional interest in maritime security, there is no doubt of the island’s key role as a strategic and security location. Taking into account its previous experience as a Japanese base during World War II, Jeju strategic location has become more relevant in light of the strengthening of China and Japan’s marine military strategy (Institute for Policy Studies, 2010). 

Figure 1. Map Situating Jeju Regionally. Source: Institute for Policy Studies (2010)

Caught between local demand and national priorities, the Jeju government has finally opted for the development of the second airport. Taken together with the United States alliance, not only will this mean the decongestion the first airport, as the government claims, but as well an escalation in the naval arms race in Northeast Asia (Institute for Policy Studies, 2010). Following the President Obama’s 2012 announcement of a “pivot to Asia” and the projection of US military power into the region, the US has now doubled its operations and deployed troops in places such as Darwin, Australia, the Philippines or Okinawa (Columban Center, 2019).

It is suspected that, following the United States interest on the region, the later will be capable of using the base for monitoring China’s naval power and, thus, regional military tensions, as it did during World War II.  As Lee Tae-ho, deputy secretary general of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in South Korea, argues “the Chinese government has a response strategy that first attacks U.S. missile defense in the case of an emergency, which means that Jeju naval base will be targeted in an armed conflict between the United States and China” (Institute for Policy Studies, 2010).

Despite the lack of consent among the local population and the provided scientific evidence denying the need of constructing a second airport, the Moon Jae-in (central government) and Won Hee-ryon’s (provincial government) announced their unilateral decision. The construction of the second airport is not only concerning for its enforcement in a unilateral and undemocratic way, but most importantly for the strong probability of it being used as an air force base. Militarizing the island of Jeju has been present in the government’s plans ever since 1987, when the South Korean MND proposed it as a mid-term plan. Located in a geopolitically strategic point of Northeast Asia, there is no doubt that the militarization of Jeju and its use as part of the United States domination strategy against China will threaten to make Jeju what some regard as “the powder keg of Northeast Asia”.

Situated in the southern coast of South Korea, Jeju has turned into Korea’s tourism hub with up to 15 million international and national tourists every year (BBC, 2019). The new airport is expected to triple the number of tourists up to 45 million by 2035 (South China Morning Post, 2018).

Having already experimented exhaustion of underground water, overflow of thrush, as well as pollution of the sea, Jeju is claimed to have already exceeded its environmental capacity due to its over-tourism.

However, the 2nd airport has not only brought discrepancies among environmentalists and pacifists, but also among locals and residents, who are threatened with the rise of real estate prices and, thus, the loss of their livelihoods and homes (The Korea Times, 2019).

Yoon Kyung-mi, co-chair of the Jeju Green Party steering committee, after three days of an undefined hunger strike, requested to the Moon Jae-In government to: “Listen to the voice of the people of Jeju. Stop ignoring our voice and silencing us in a dictatorial manner. Problem solving will begin when the Jeju 2nd airport plans are stopped, then let’s talk again” (Environmental Justice Atlas, 2019).

In light of this situation, the following  international petitions have been created so as to demand the cancelation of Jeju’s Second Airport:  

Stop the Jeju 2nd airport(Air Force Base) Project! (English language petition)

中斷濟州第二機場(空軍基地)建設國際連署書! (Chinese language petition)

済州第2空港(空軍基地)中止のための国際請願 (Japanese language petition)

You may also sign to this other petition supported by a Korean group,  focused on the environment implications of the Jeju 2nd airport project.


Hyun-bin, K. (2019). New Jeju Airport still facing challenges. Retrieved 7 January 2020, from https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2019/06/281_271021.html

Institute for Policy Studies. (2020). Jeju and a Naval Arms Race in Asia.  Retrieved 7 January 2020, from https://ips-dc.org/jeju_and_a_naval_arms_race_in_asia/

Lufkin, B. (2019). The tiny island that aims to become a carbon-neutral paradise. Retrieved 7 January 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190925-the-holiday-paradise-going-green-amid-a-tourist-boom

Min-ho, J. (2018). South Korea’s Jeju Island suffers from ‘too many tourists’. Retrieved 7 January 2020, from https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2126785/south-koreas-jeju-island-suffers-too-many-tourists 

Environmental Justice Atlas (2019). Second airport in Jeju (air force base), south coast, South Korea. Retrieved 7 January 2020, from https://ejatlas.org/conflict/second-airport-in-jeju-south-coast-of-south-korea

Sung-hee, C. (2019). Why the 2nd Jeju airport project is suspected to be an air force base?. Retrieved 7 January 2020, from http://savejejunow.org/why-the-2nd-jeju-airport-project-is-suspected-to-be-an-air-force-base/

The Challenges of Militarism. (2019). Retrieved 9 January 2020, from https://columbancenter.org/challenges-militarism