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Endangered ruins uncovered at Jeju naval base construction site reveal Korea’s ancient past
Historian says construction at the proposed naval base site in Gangjeong must be halted to prevent damage to relics of Korean cultural heritage. The Gangjeong prehistoric area has been inadequately protected by the government, according to lawyers.
Halt to construction urged
"During the excavation investigation period, all construction must stop,” said Hwang Pyung-woo, director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute. "Relics dating from the Bronze Age to the Joseon Dynasty are scattered widely.”
Revealing the beginnings of Jeju civilization, the excavated ruins at Gangjeong are a landmark archaeological discovery, Hwang stated. He called for the execution of more precise assessment studies and the expansion of the excavation area. Currently, the archaeological excavation area partially overlaps with the site of the proposed Jeju naval base where construction is already underway.
The archaeological value of this find is equivalent to that of the Samyang-dong ruins, according to Hwang. Discovered in 1996, the Samyang-dong prehistoric area is currently the earliest example of large-scale settlement not only in Jeju, but also in Korea. Archaeologists say that it dates from the Bronze Age through the early Iron Age. The Gangjeong prehistoric area could potentially extend this timeline even further, as the relics found thus far indicate that people have been continuously occupying the area since before the first millennium into present day. The Joseon era, spanning five centuries, was the last Korean dynasty before the Japanese occupation.
Construction at site illegal
Pointing to the inadequacy of the government archaeological investigation of the site that was completed before construction started, Hwang said that only 10 to 20 percent of the site had been examined. He criticized the investigation, which was mainly conducted by civil servants, for failing to include experts from the Cultural Asset Committee.
After consulting lawyers regarding cultural properties protection law, Hwang has concluded that any construction at the site prior to the completion of a thorough investigation into the presence of cultural assets is illegal. "In the future, the Cultural Research Steering Committee and the briefing meetings for residents should be held with the participation of experts recommended by the residents,” said Hwang. In the meantime, he said that all fences must be removed “because installing of the fence poles could damage relics buried underneath.”
In June 2007, the Korean government selected Gangjeong as the site of a $970 million naval base through a process that residents argue failed to follow democratic procedures. The base, which is due to be completed in 2014, is slated to host 20 warships. Construction began in January 2011, but it has been minimal due to the widely publicized resistance of residents who have been living in tents in and near areas where construction is planned. In addition to protests, the villagers have filed lawsuits to try to block construction, which they say will add to regional tensions as well as to environmental damage. On Friday, more than 1,000 riot police moved in to clear the protesters, allowing construction to resume.
Jeju as national cultural treasure
Jeju formed into an island 20,000 years ago, as the sea level rose following the recession of the polar glaciers, bringing drastic environmental changes to the flora and fauna. The island was created entirely from volcanic eruptions approximately 2 million years ago, and consists chiefly of basalt and lava. In 2006, an archaeological site on the island was dubbed Korea's version of Pompeii after it was confirmed that a volcanic eruption more than 5,000 years ago smothered a human settlement within the site of modern-day Seogwipo City.
At the forefront of a growing movement in Korea to recover historic items removed from the country during successive waves of foreign invasion and nearly half a century of Japanese colonial rule, Hwang is equally concerned that his country does not lose cultural heritage jewels like the Gangjeong prehistoric relics by its own hand.
Near the port area, archaeologists have already identified a Joseon Dynasty-period pit and, by the main gate at the construction site, a round dwelling and area with evidence of charred soil estimated to be from the Bronze Age. Hwang added that it is rare for Jeju to have archaeological finds from different eras together in a single site.