Ten years later, activists in a Jeju Island village are a ray of hope | By Martha Vickery, Photos by Stephen Wunrow (Fall 2018 issue)
Gangjeong seems like one of many villages that dot the southwestern coast of Jeju Island, the farthest island off southern coast of South Korea. It is quiet in the morning, when its few shops are stirring, small groups wait at the bus stop, going off to work, perhaps to larger towns where there are more jobs. Most of the workers of the town are early-rising farmers, who break the morning silence revving their tractor engines and other equipment that they drive through the winding tree-lined streets.
But Gangjeong’s quiet is like the quiet that comes with exhaustion. After a spirited daily resistance over the course of more than 10 years against a U.S.-backed South Korean naval base in the heart of their village, the base is now complete, and troops permanently reside there. Locals have to wake up in the morning and live with that reality, pondering whether their tiny town has become the nexus of war and peace in Asia.
Opened in 2016, the naval base has created a cement gash in the landscape of this verdant area which was once a peaceful, traditional place. It has also irreparably damaged a marine area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rare and endangered aquatic species and unique coral reefs.
The final insult was the destruction of a rare gigantic basalt slab, one kilometer long by 200 meters wide, known as Gureombi Rock, on the coast and in the ocean at Gangjeong. A playground and sacred place for local residents, the coastal portion of the rock was dynamited in 2016 to create a deep area next to the shoreline for docking of military vessels.
Ten years of resistance continues
Ten years on, a small number of local, national, and international activists are still on the ground in Gangjeong. They are a ray of hope in an increasingly militarized place, where many have given up their spirit to a numb acceptance of a new reality.
The necessity of activists there is not obvious —- at first glance it seems they are doggedly staying in a place where the social and environmental tragedy is now complete, however, upon examination, it is clear that much work is before this small group. The base makes the entire island vulnerable to further militarization; there are planned military activities and which activists believe deserve the attention of the international peace community.
At the time of KQ’s visit in September 2018, activists were working to raise awareness of the South Korean government’s planned International Fleet Review, held October 10 to 14, of an array of potentially 100 warships and 14 aircraft from South Korea, the U.S. and allied countries, according to activist and international communications coordinator Sung-Hee Choi. The fleet review happens once every 10 years and is a giant parade of naval firepower.
The venue of the review, in the South China Sea only about 300 miles from China, is no coincidence, Choi added. In addition to the logistical problems of where to put that many ships (the base can accommodate a maximum of 20), Choi and other activists are concerned with the noise and sound pollution, potential dangers of all that firepower, as well as the trash and ocean pollution associated with that number of warships in close proximity.
Long term, activists are concerned with the further militarization of the island, due particularly to recent pressure on Jeju Islanders by the South Korean government to place a new military airport in the southwestern area of the island, in another small town. Resistance could extend to a new small town in the near future.
How this could happen
In the mid-‘90s, the government was first searching for a base site on Jeju Island, and Gangjeong was one of three possible locations. Gangjeong villagers initially opposed the base, but the government persisted, offering residents the prospect of increased commerce and jobs.
The base was nominally approved at an April 2007 public meeting, attended by a very small group of voters. A majority of 97 voters indicated their approval of the base by clapping, a violation of voting protocol, according to U.S. activist Kaia Vereide, who has been working in Gangjeong for several years. The government refused to recognize any other local vote, she said, including a second vote two months later with a large representation of eligible voters. At that meeting, an overwhelming majority rejected the base.
Local residents hit the streets in demonstration against the base, and were on the march for many years. They were joined by activists from mainland South Korea, and thereafter an international peace effort was launched.
Ten years on, although efforts to stop the base were unsuccessful, the Gangjeong struggle has alerted the world to the dangers of military expansion and the sensitive geopolitical position South Korea now occupies in the balance of power between China and the U.S.
A day in Gangjeong
There is a set routine to the activists’ days on the ground in Gangjeong, which provides structure and community to their effort. Just before 7 a.m., they assemble, with (now rather tattered) signs and banners, for the 100 Bows ceremony. The 100 Bows is a calm meditative ritual, with each bow is dedicated to a peacemaking principle. At one time, this ritual served a dual purpose of concentrating participants’ attention on the work of peace while blocking the construction site and/or gates; these days, a kind of uneasy access arrangement has been worked out.
Activists occupy a place on the broad road and sidewalk leading to the base. Base workers, both military and civilian, stride up to the security gate, flash badges, and hurry in to work while demonstrators stand and bow in quiet reflection. The ceremony ends after about 45 minutes with some energizing music. Plain clothes security guards, along with some waiting workers in paint-spattered uniforms, look on as the 100 Bows are offered. Their attitude seems neutral, but activists on site are cautious about the presence of the guards; just recently one guard got violent with some of the demonstrators, Veriede said.
After the ritual, some of the group eat breakfast at a community kitchen and meeting place. It is a roofed building with open sides, furnished with a long table, many chairs and shelves of supplies. The kitchen is on the property of Gangjeong resident activist/farmer. Dogs are tied up outside, and roosters crow nearby. The interior is decorated with handmade wooden plaques made by the energetic Catholic leader and activist Fr. Jeong Hyeon Mun, some engraved with Korean poetry, others with scripture. There are plenty of fried eggs, side dishes, rice and kimchi, all offered by the farmer who is still devoted to the resistance movement.
A native Jeju Islander, Catholic lay worker, and long-time anti-base activist Sunyoo Jeong, who goes by the name “Joan of Arc,” has a small shared house on the premises, and lets people use her bathroom and kitchen. Other activists, including Veriede, a member of the Christian peace movement. The Frontiers, and some Quaker residents, live in converted shipping containers on nearby rented land.
The morning continues with a daily outdoor Catholic mass, held under another narrow tent, wedged on the side of a busy road approaching the base. The mass is attended by activists and about a dozen neighborhood people. Traffic whizzes by, and the hot air smells like exhaust as Fr. Sunghwan Kim leads the congregation through songs, a homily, and celebration of the eucharist.
Kim refers to himself as “just a member of the team.” He worked with the Gangjeong people in their resistance since 2011 through 2016, had a recent two-year break to do peace studies in Ireland, and is now back living in the village along with two other Jesuit priests. They are all devoted to the peacemaking efforts there.
This daily mass, followed by rosary and announcements, has been going on since the beginning of the resistance, but the style and location of it these days is a much milder version of the defiant worship held daily for many years in front of the construction site/naval base gate. Kim described the scene, repeated over and over again during his years there.
“While one team was inside the tent [celebrating mass], another team blocked [the gate],” he recalled. “The construction vehicles would come in, and we blocked them. The police were called in to move us to the sides. The police surrounded us for five or 10 minutes, while the construction vehicles went in, and then we returned to block the entrance. This repeated during the Catholic mass, maybe every 10 minutes …we tried to concentrate on our mass, even though they intervened. We kept silent, kept our seats on our chairs and they came up to us, and three police picked up each of the chairs and moved the people to the side.” Whether with a few people or many, the daily routine went on for years during the construction.
Kim credits the Jeju bishop, Peter Kang, for his leadership and determination that Catholic activists should live in the village during the protest years, and that the priests should continue the international presence into the future. Kim also praised his colleague and mentor, Fr. Jeong Hyeon Mun, who has lived in solidarity with the Gangjeong people for many years.
Many of the activists have spent time in prison, since their civil disobedience activities to stop construction of the base led to charges of blocking public rights-of-way and disrupting business. Sunyoo Jeong jokingly said that prison time can be “a break from all the things we have to do every day.”
After the mass and recitation of the rosary, the activists also hold a daily procession called the Human Chain, which starts with a few protest songs, then marches to the base gates, weaving back and forth along the entrance road. The chain was also once an obstruction tactic; these days, it is simply a daily reminder that the local and international peace communities are still on the job. On this date, a food truck from Seoul, which supplies free meals at protest sites, is visiting and supplying big bowls of vegetable curry and rice; and the mood is relaxed as the daily activities come to a close.
The effect on people
Prior to the base construction, Gangjeong was a typical village of 1,800 hardworking people. The island has never been an easy place to make a living. This made residents vulnerable to promises of jobs and increased commerce -which they were told would come with the naval base, according to long-time activist Sunhee Choi. The residents are still mainly Jeju (mandarin) orange growers or farmers of strawberries or other crops; others are in the fishing industry.
The naval base controversy has irreparably altered the traditional lifestyle of this place. Relationships among villagers, within families, and their relationship to spiritual things they hold sacred are all disrupted since the base issue began. “It’s all broken,” Jeong said.
A few villagers remain staunchly opposed to the base, according to Choi. After so many years of dissent, other villagers have succumbed to the need to get on with their lives, she said.
An international effort
Choi learned about the movement first in 2007. She was living in New York, and “I happened to read an article that a National Assembly woman went on a hunger strike for 27 days against the Jeju Navy Base project. I was really impressed,” she recalled. She was interested in missile defense as a topic for her peace-related art projects, and was drawn to this emerging issue, inspired by the struggle of the small town people.
After visits to Jeju Island in 2008 and 2009, she said, she moved to Gangjeong permanently in 2010 to join the resistance. The local movement connected with mainland South Korean activists, but they needed to reach out to the international peace community in English. That became Choi’s responsibility, initially through a blog and SMS messaging. She established the English language website Save Jeju Now and a parallel Facebook page, and posted news stories and videos of the demonstrations on the site, as well as news of global struggles of people against militarism.
Gradually, news spread about the David and Goliath drama for peace happening on Jeju. After that, she said, “many well-known activists began to visit Jeju Island.” Among them, women’s rights pioneer and peace activist Gloria Steinem (who visited while Choi was in prison for a civil disobedience action, so she did not meet her, she said). Other high-profile visitors lent their names to the struggle, including film director Oliver Stone (in 2013), and well-known U.S. peace activists, including U.S. Army veteran Ann Wright (seven times) and Bruce Gagnon (six times). “Famous international activists and celebrities supported us and spread information in their network, so we are very indebted to them for their solidarity work” Choi said.
Many U.S. activist writers published about the struggle of Jeju, including Noam Chomsky. The U.S. organization Veterans for Peace and other international peace organizations have made numerous visits to demonstrate with other activists. Several documentary films, including Ghosts of Jeju, by Regis Tremblay, explained the importance of the struggle to an international audience.
To build the U.S.-backed base, multiple layers of government needed to throw democratic rules and principles, as well as normal environmental standards out the window. Local autonomy was denied. Valuable archaeological evidence was discovered at the construction site, but government authorities ordered the excavation stopped because construction had to proceed.
Local and mainland activists initially intervened to stand up against the violations of the democratic process as word spread that the base was to be built despite widespread opposition by the residents.
Militarization fear spreads to an international audience
The international peace community’s interest was in part because the naval base is perceived as a new and destabilizing step in the “pivot to Asia” arms race by the U.S. Ganjeong is in a key location. Jeju Island is located about 60 miles off the southern coast of South Korea, and only about 300 miles from Shanghai, China and 500 miles from Beijing.
The fact that the base in Ganjeong is a South Korean base, occupied by the South Korean navy at present, is almost immaterial, Choi explained, because of the unique “Status of Forces Agreement” (SOFA) that gives the U.S. ultimate control over the South Korean forces. “So many activists have told me ‘oh it’s not a U.S. base, so what’s the problem? But that’s what U.S. military aims to do —- they do not want this base to be paid attention to,” she said. But because of the SOFA, “the truth is that it can be ready [for U.S. military use] at any time.”
Adjoining the base is a giant docking area, created ostensibly for cruise ships, along with a cruise ship terminal building, which has been empty and locked up since the base opened in 2016, Vereide said. Only one cruise ship, an empty one, has visited there, and the giant deep draft dock and terminal have not been used for anything else. However, activists suspect that the cruise ship dock is exactly the right depth and length for a U.S. aircraft carrier. In addition to the cruise ship terminal, 20 warships can be docked at the base.
Construction on the base includes a traditional Buddhist temple, and two churches —- Protestant and Catholic —- curiously blank and square concrete buildings, and a new soccer stadium. Apartment housing for base families is outside the agreed-upon base footprint, Vereide said. There was an occupation by peace groups of the housing site in 2015, because the navy had promised it would not expand its operations beyond a designated area. “People were camping out on the property overnight in January to try to stop it,” she said.
Ecological damage to the area has also been immense. The destruction of a portion of Gureombi Rock was significant to villagers and other Jeju Islanders. However, it was the expected destruction of the unique soft coral reef, home to many threatened and endangered species, that mobilized the international community of environmentalists.
For more than 10 years, environmentalists have protested, reported on, and submitted petitions against the construction of this base, particularly due to its proximity to Tiger Island, a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve, located a mile from the site, to no avail. An exhibit located in the St. Francis Peace Center in Gangjeong shows underwater photos of the nearby soft coral reef, before and after the construction of the base, and how the marine plant growth of that part of the reef has been reduced an estimated 80 percent because of the disruption of the water flow caused by the underwater area of the base.
Island of Peace, Island of Irony
Immediately after the division of Korea, in 1948, Jeju people mobilized against the country’s division, and boycotted the first presidential elections. After troops were dispatched with U.S. backing to quell the unrest. The troops brutally suppressed the rebellion for more than two years, after which 30,000 islanders were indiscriminately killed. Many served time in jail without trial, others survived attacks but were maimed for life.
Survivors of the massacres and their descendants have been recently involved in a protracted suit against the government to clear the names of those who were killed and those who were incarcerated without a trial.
The resistance to the naval base has its roots in this history of injustice. In part to atone for the 1948 massacre, the island was given the designation of “Island of World Peace” in 2005. An annual Jeju Peace Forum has been held since 2001.
The Peace Forum has had many positive results, including opportunities for the No Naval Base movement to reach out to other island peoples who struggle against militarism. Because of this international gathering, Gangjeong activists were able to reach out to peace groups in Okinawa, Guam, Taiwan and Hawaii.
Cho explained, “It is because we realize how similar the fates of islands are. Islands are geographically isolated, and for that and other reasons they are easily targeted for military bases and tourism exploitation —- two things that are sort of connected with each other.”
In 2014, in conjunction with the Peace Forum, the Gangjeong anti-base movement held their first international gathering of Pacific Rim island people working for peace and against militarism, now called the Inter-island Solidarity for the Peace of the Sea, Cho said. In 2018, for the first time, a representative came from Hawaii.
There is great irony in this “island of peace” designation with the draconian measures taken to make sure the base was built despite the myriad reasons not to do so, Choi pointed out.
Concerning the International Fleet Review, Choi said “the Moon administration intervened despite the opposition of locals.” Although the local board opposed the Fleet Review in a March 13 vote, the authorities continued to try to persuade the board to permit it, and eventually succeeded, despite “a promise from the military that it would abide by the decision of the local board,” she said.
In a further twist of irony, Choi said, the Moon government officials were speaking as though the President would formally apologize for the base being put in Gangjeong. “But forcing the Fleet Review on them is, of course not an apology, but a betrayal. It is really ridiculous, but that’s what is happening now.”
In defiance of Mother Nature
On August 23, Typhoon Soulik battered the southwestern coast of Jeju Island, in a typical weather pattern of tropical storms in that area (Typhoon Prapiroon also hit the same areas in July). Gangjeong is particularly vulnerable to typhoon damage, Choi said, with its coast directly on the South China Sea. During the typhoons, the warships disappeared from the area, heading out to sea to avoid the damage that could result from wave action to the ships at dock. With no harbor, the base on the edge of the South China Sea cannot provide enough shelter from heavy weather, so ships need to go out to sea, or to another base that can accommodate them.
Along the southern South Korea coast, the typhoon downed powerlines and trees, collapsed buildings and caused landslides. In Gangjeong, the typhoon battered the activist’s makeshift community; it collapsed a small storage building, blew down fence lines, and took out a latrine. Boarded-up buildings were evident on the island’s south coast. Even on sunny summer days, the shoreline is buffeted by strong winds coming across the expanse of ocean from the south.
“I’ve had trouble understanding the logic for it,” said Korea historian and author Bruce Cumings said of the planned Jeju naval base in the 2012 documentary film Ghosts of Jeju. Cumings describes how naval bases in Okinawa and Tokyo provide access to mainland China for U.S. military. South Korea has a large naval base, Chinhae, located at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, in the city of Busan. From the perspective of purely military strategy, adding more military to this overmilitarized area seemed excessive, Cumings said.
Continuing the resistance
In early 2018, the 11th year of the struggle, for the first time since the struggle began, the anti-base candidate for mayor lost the local election, Choi said. The Navy has been emphasizing the presumed economic benefit to the base being there. Although few civilian jobs have appeared since the base construction was completed, promises of jobs and commerce are still key to the South Korean government’s message, Choi said.
“We are very small in numbers, but they are conscious of us,” Choi said of the activists who remain. “We are present every day to say ‘close the base’ and ‘cancel the fleet review,’” They know the struggle is international, and paid attention to. They cannot fail to be conscious of us. They also know they can tempt weak-minded local residents.”
The activist community is not unsympathetic toward residents who need to do other important life activities, Choi said. However, the Navy uses it to their advantage. “One of the roots of our struggle is opposition of the local residents. But then the local board decided to allow the fleet review. It seems there is not much space for us,” she said. Local residents’ support is still needed and valued, including that of the former mayor, a native of Gangjeong, and one of the main base opponents.
Activists from the mainland and Jeju Island continue their daily presence, and key international activists have no plans to leave. “They are using the argument that activists are outsiders,”
Choi said of the government’s influence. “But I am constantly saying that it is a national and international matter, and it is an issue for all Korean citizens. It is not just a local matter. So here we are.”
More on the International Fleet Review and other Gangjeong news is available on the Save Jeju Now website and Facebook page (savejejunow.org)
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Korean Quarterly is dedicated to producing quality non-profit independent journalism rooted in the Korean American community. Please support us by subscribing, donating, or making a purchase through our store.