JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- On a sunny winter day, a group of 20 people gathered for an outdoor Catholic Mass in front of barricades around a construction site on the southern resort island of Jeju.
While priests, nuns and civic activists prayed for "peace for Jeju Island," a dump truck escorted by police buses passed through the gateway to the construction site for a naval base, passing colorful placards and graffiti with anti-war messages.
This has been an everyday scene in Gangjeong Village, a small fishing town on the island's southern coast, since the government set up 3-4 meter fences early last year to start building a modern military port.
If completed as scheduled in 2015, the base will be able to hold up to 20 warships simultaneously, along with two 150,000-ton cruise ships. Currently, landfill operations and initial work is under way to build caissons, the foundations of a bridge pier.
Military officials say the new base will give Seoul a launching point from which to send naval vessels into southern waters, a key trade route for South Korea, and revitalize the small town with 2,000 residents, mostly fishermen and tangerine farmers.
On the other side, environmentalists, peace activists and some local residents have staged protests for as long as two years and taken legal steps to halt the construction. They voice concerns over potential environmental damage to the area designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the escalation of an arms race in Northeast Asia, particularly on the Korean Peninsula.
Although the Supreme Court in July gave the military the green light to the state project, tension still hovers in the air as dozens of protesters, mostly from outside the island, still hold rallies and occasionally clash with authorities. About 400 riot police officers are stationed near the site, according to officials.
Military and government officials say the project is at a point where there is no turning back. The adamant protesters say they have no plans to end their demonstrations.
Although Gangjeong villagers raised their voices when the controversial project was a hot-button issue ahead of the general elections in April, most now hope for an end to the prolonged conflict that has caused deep rifts in the town.
One resident complained about the loudspeakers that urged villagers to fight against riot police when some activists were taken under custody for violent demonstrations.
"The government approved the project and the construction is underway," the villager in his 50s said, declining to give his name because he was worried about the repercussions of talking to the media. "As it has already started, I just want it to be completed as soon as possible."
Military officials say they also want the confrontation over so that they can smoothly proceed with the project, and get along with local residents.
"The sound of loudspeakers for protests is a burden on soldiers and workers here," a Navy officer told a Yonhap News reporter during a recent visit there.
The prolonged conflict illustrates the difficulties of building a new military base in Asia's fourth-largest economy, which sees a growing number of legal disputes regarding pollution and noise near military facilities.
"This is going to be a clear example of a state project that is locked up in political disputes," a naval officer said, asking for anonymity. "When considering building an additional military base in the future, policymakers will have to take into consideration the additional costs caused by political wrangling and protests."
The latest wrangling took place in late November after the parliamentary defense committee approved a 201 billion won (US$185 million) budget bill on Nov. 29, even though opposition lawmakers boycotted the process.
Lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) had called for nullifying the bill, although they later retreated from their earlier position to halve the budget, citing flaws in the construction procedure.
In Seoul, an hour flight from the famous tourist destination, Rev. Moon Jeong-hyun, an open critic of the naval base, had his hair shaved during a rally in front of the National Assembly and has begun an indefinite hunger strike in protest of the budget bill passage.
The budget bill is now pending in a parliamentary budget subcommittee, which put on hold the bill citing pros and cons over the controversial bill. It needs to get full approval in the plenary session for implementation.
While the naval base project became a high-stake political issue under a liberal campaign ahead of the April election, the media spotlight has mostly faded over the project in the run-up to the presidential election on December 19.
If the bill is put off until after the December vote, the size of the budget may depend on who is elected.
Moon Jae-in, the leading liberal presidential candidate, criticized the naval base project ahead of the April polls, but has spared his words in the run-up to the presidential election.
During his visit to the island in September, Moon said he agreed to the need to build a naval base there, but stressed the democratic process was necessary to proceed further with the construction. The former chief of staff to the liberal government of Roh Moo-hyun apologized for approving the project while he was in office.
Park Geun-hye, the conservative front-runner of the Saenuri Party, criticized Moon for reversing his stance over the project, saying the naval base is necessary for strong national defense.