A Pivot on the Peace Island

by

Jeju Island, South Korea 

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in the Republic of Korea (ROK), as a guest of peace activists living in Gangjeong Village on ROK’s Jeju Island. Gangjeong is one of the ROK’s smallest villages, yet activists here, in their struggle against the construction of a massive naval base, have inspired people around the world.

Since 2007, activists have risked arrests, imprisonment, heavy fines and wildly excessive use of police force to resist the desecration caused as mega-corporations like Samsung and Daelim build a base to accommodate U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for their missions throughout Asia. The base fits the regional needs of the U.S. for a maritime military outpost that would enable it to continue developing its Asia Pivot strategy, gradually building towards and in the process provoking superpower conflict with China.

“We don’t need this base,” says Bishop Kang, a Catholic prelate who vigorously supports the opposition. He worries that if the base is completed, Jeju Island will become a focal point for Far Eastern military struggle, and that this would occur amid accelerating military tensions. “The strongest group in the whole world, the military, takes advantage of National Security ideology,” he continues. “Many people make money. Many governments are controlled by this militarism. The military generals, in their minds, may think they are doing this to protect their country, but in fact they’re controlled by the corporations.”

Jeju Islanders cannot ignore or forget that at least 30,000 of their grandparents and great-grandparents were slaughtered by a U.S.-supported Korean government intent on crushing a tenacious democracy movement. The height of the assault in 1948 is referred to as the April 3 massacre, although the persecution and murderous suppression lasted many years. The national government now asking sacrifices of them has rarely been their friend.

But for the construction, Gangjeong seems a truly idyllic place to live. Lanes curving through the village are bordered by gardens and attractive small homes. Villagers prize hard work and honesty, in a town with apparently no need to lock up anything, where well-cultivated orange trees fill the eye with beauty and the air with inexpressible fragrance. Peaks rise in the distance, it’s a quick walk to the shore, and residents seem eager to guide their guests to nearby spots designated as especially sacred in the local religion as indicated by the quiet beauty to be found there.

One of these sacred sites, Gureombi Rock, is a single, massive 1.2 km lava rock that was home to a fresh water coastal wetland, pure fresh water springs and hundreds of plants and animal species. Now, it can only be accessed through the memories of villagers because the Gureombi Rock is the exact site chosen for construction of the naval base. My new friend, Tilcote, explained to me, through tears, that Gureombi has captured her heart and that now her heart aches for Gureombi.

Last night we gathered to watch and discuss a film by our activist film-maker and friend Cho Sung-Bong. Activists recalled living in a tent camp on Gureombi, successful for a time in blocking the construction companies. “Gureombi was our bed, our dinner table, our stage, and our prayer site,” said Jonghwan, who now works every day as a chef at the community kitchen. “Every morning we would wake and hear the waves and the birds.”

The film, set for release later this year, is called “Gureombi, the Wind is Blowing.” Cho, who had arrived in Gangjeong for a 2011 visit at the height of vigorous blockades aimed at halting construction, decided to stay and film what he saw. We see villagers use their bodies to defend Gureombi. They lie down beneath construction vehicles, challenge barges with kayaks, organize human chains, occupy cranes, and, bearing no arms, surround heavily armed riot police. The police use extreme force, the protesters regroup and repeat. Since 2007, over 700 arrests have been made with more than 26 people imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands in fines imposed on ordinary villagers. Gangjeong village now has the highest “crime” rate in South Korea!

Opposing the real crime of the base against such odds, the people here have managed to create all the “props” for a thriving community. The community kitchen serves food free of charge, 24 hours a day. The local peace center is also open most of the day and evening, as well as the Peaceful Café. Books abound, for lending, many of them donated by Korean authors who admire the villagers’ determination to resist the base construction. Food, and much wisdom, are available but so much more is needed.

After seven years of struggle many of the villagers simply can’t afford to incur additional fines, neglecting farms, and languishing, as too many have done, in prison. A creative holding pattern of resistance has developed which relies on community members from abroad and throughout the ROK to block the gate every morning in the context of a lengthy Catholic liturgy.

Priests and nuns, whose right to pray and celebrate the liturgy is protected by the Korean constitution, form a line in front of the gate. They sit in plastic chairs, for morning mass followed by recitation of the rosary. Police dutifully remove the priests, nuns and other activists about ten times over the course of the liturgy, allowing trucks to go through. The action slows down the construction process and sends a symbolic, daily message of resistance.

Returning to the U.S., I’ll carry memories not only of tenacious, creative, selfless struggle but also of the earnest questions posed by young Jeju Island students who themselves now face prospects of compulsory military service. Should they experiment with conscientious objection and face the harsh punishments imposed on those who oppose militarization by refusing military service?

Their questions help me pivot towards a clearer focus on how peace activists, worldwide, can oppose the U.S. pivot toward increasing militarization in Asia, increasing conflict with its global rivals, and a spread of weapons that it is everyone’s task to hinder as best they can.

Certainly one step is to consider the strength of Gangjeong Village, and to draw seriousness of purpose from their brave commitment and from the knowledge of what is at stake for them and for their region. It’s crucial to learn about their determination to be an island of peace. As we find ways to demand constructive cooperation between societies rather than relentless bullying and competition, their struggle should become ours.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence www.vcnv.org   and is active with the World Beyond War campaign. When in Afghanistan, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

KATHY KELLY co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence and has worked closely with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. She is the author of Other Lives, Other Dreams published by CounterPunch / AK Press. She can be reached at: Kathy@vcnv.org  This article was first published on Telesur English.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action