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Does Hard-line Jeju Response Signal New 'Public Safety' Crackdown?
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Villagers of Jeju and members of civic groups what are opposed to construction of a naval base at Gangjeong Village hold a meeting to cope with developing situations. With the "conference on public safety policy" determined to clamp down on opposition to a naval base, it is feared that harsh measures will follow against civic movements. (Photo by Kim Chang-gil)

The dictionary definition of "public safety" is "public stability and order:" in other words, the safety of the national community as a whole. In Korean society, however, the term is generally used in a negative way.

This is because in the past, the regimes of military dictators often inflated, distorted or fabricated certain national circumstances in order to suppress resistance on the part of opposition forces or students.

Such "public safety drives" and "creation of public safety situations" were commanded by "policy committees of related organizations." Such committees were gatherings of key figures from the intelligence services, the prosecution and the police, where policies were discussed and specific plans made.

A "conference on public safety policy," composed of officials from the prosecution service, the police, the Ministry of National Defense and the Defense Security Command has reportedly decided to clamp down firmly on any action to oppose the construction of a naval base at Gangjeong Village on Jeju Island.

The reason we regard this move on the part of the authorities as peculiar is its timing and the nature of the matter.

It has given rise to observations that the government may be attempting in earnest to fabricate matters of public safety concern, after feeling the need to prevent governmental power loss and to have a change of situation, as announced by newly appointed Prosecutor General Han Sang-dae, who called in his inaugural speech for "a war against the left-wing powers that serve North Korea."

In the case of Gangjeong Village naval base, we have stated many times that constant dialogue and communication between authorities and local residents are the way to a solution.

We also suggested a referendum as a realistic alternative, if both sides are unable to narrow their differences or find another solution.

Not only Jeju Islanders, be they Gangjeong residents or members of Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council, want dialogue.

In recent days, a conference of city and provincial assembly speakers from across Korea has urged a peaceful resolution, while international intellectuals are also opposing coercive solutions that involve the use of physical force.

As we have pointed out several times, despite the fact that the Jeju naval base is a project where those for and against are sharply at odds, and therefore one that demands ample opinion gathering, procedural flaws such as the distortion of public opinion in the process of attracting the base to Gangjeong Village have exacerbated the conflict.

Considering historical pain endured by the people of Jeju-do, including the April 3, 1948 incident, the after-effects of the hard-line measures employed by authorities will be of unspeakable proportions.

Nonetheless, police have arrested Gangjeong Village head Kang Dong-kyun and two others, and replaced Seogwipo Police Station head Song Yang-hwa for his lukewarm way of dealing with the matter.

Despite the fact that Song, himself from the same region, made sincere efforts in his own way to engage in dialogue with residents, he was criticized for "losing public authority" and ended up with the frustration of having been punitively reshuffled out of his job. Such hard-line measures can never be the right response.

This is not all. It is also possible that the authorities' public order-based response will increase fears and anxiety among local residents that police from the mainland will engage in a bloody suppression, 63 years after that of April 3, 1948, causing an unfortunate incident.

Consequently, the government must immediately cease with its current means of response, which involves driving local residents all in one direction after labelling them as morally unsound or as threats to the system.

Watching discussions among the National Assembly and the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council, we believe a solution is possible through patience and dialogue with citizens. (Editorial, The Kyunghyang Daily News. August 26, 2011)

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