South Korean activists gathered yesterday on a southern holiday island to protest against the construction of a navy base a day after hundreds of riot police dispersed demonstrators blocking the work.
About 300 activists and opposition party members flew to Jeju island to join protesters already there, Yonhap news agency reported.
They plan a “peace event” including a concert and cultural activities to demonstrate opposition to the planned base at Gangjeong village on the south coast.
Protesters say the base, which will be open to US forces, will damage the environment and could spark disputes with China over the US presence.
Opponents have occupied the site since June, preventing construction. Police dispersed about 130 people on Friday and arrested 38 of them. Scuffles broke out but no serious violence was reported.
Construction workers later on Friday completed a fence around the site.
Jeju police have sent 230 officers to support 606 riot police already stationed in Gangjeong, some of them dispatched from the mainland.
Military officials say the US$970 million project is vital for national security. Once completed in 2014 it will host some 20 warships, including submarines, to help protect shipping lanes through which virtually all the country’s sea trade passes.
The deployment will also help guard against sea infiltration by North Korea and could quickly respond to territorial disputes with neighboring states, the military has said.
Some islanders support the project for the boost it will give the local economy.
Opponents ranging from environmentalists to religious leaders and anti-government activists allege South Korea bowed to pressure from the US, which they say is eager to establish a military presence near China.
Both Seoul and Washington, which stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, deny the accusation.
Meanwhile, North Korea yesterday dismissed the replacement of the hardline South Korean minister handling cross-border affairs as a sham, and accused Seoul of sticking to its “confrontation” policy.
Hyun In-taek was replaced on Tuesday as unification minister by Yu Woo-ik, but Hyun will become a special presidential adviser for unification affairs.
Hyun was the key architect of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy which links major economic aid to progress on denuclearization — a stance which enrages Pyongyang.
The North’s official news agency, in its first response to the change, branded Hyun the “chief criminal” behind what it called Lee’s policy for confrontation and said he had driven inter-Korean relations to catastrophe.
Hyun’s new appointment “is little short of invariably sticking to the policy for confrontation with the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]”, it said, without commenting on Yu.
The agency said the Seoul government had “orchestrated another burlesque mocking at the mindset of the people desirous of independence, peace and reunification.”
Ties have been frosty since Lee took over in 2008 from a left-leaning administration which practiced a “sunshine” policy of aid and engagement.
They turned icy when Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship in March last year with the loss of 46 South Korean lives.
The North denied involvement in the sinking, but shelled a South Korean border island last November, killing four people which included two civilians.