Jeju: “Island of Peace” in the Crosshairs of War

Some may wonder, how is it possible that a small Korean province called the “Island of Peace” could also have the highest crime rate in all of South Korea? Jeju Island’s population is roughly 500,000, and until recently the island community was characterized by tranquility. Seoul, by contrast, has a population of 10 million, 20 times larger. The answer is in the definition of crime. An 8-year struggle against construction of a massive naval base has been repressed by the Korean authorities with brutal human rights abuses, including an asymmetrical application of the law that has resulted in more than 600 people arrested and more than 400 charged with crimes related to their nonviolent activism at the gates of the Jeju Island, South Korea naval base construction site. Thus the “crime” spike. The offenses range from jaywalking to “obstruction of business,” the latter of which was recently charged against an elderly nun, Sister Stella Soh, for sitting in front of the gates of the naval base, blocking the construction trucks from entering. This means that for the first time in the 200 years of Korean Catholic history, a nun is being indicted for a crime.

But whose business are these anti-imperialist islanders obstructing when they reject the naval base? The Jeju Island naval base is ostensibly for the South Korean military. But it’s well understood that the U.S. military will use the installation. It fits as the crown jewel of President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” which is essentially a semi-circle of naval and military bases surrounding China. The Jeju Island naval base is also a highly lucrative business venture for Samsung. Yes, the same Samsung that produces cell phones is also building one of the largest military bases in the Pacific basin. In the process Samsung is flagrantly violating international law and trampling the island’s fragile environment and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The company is literally dynamiting a piece of land that indigenous islanders have worshiped for centuries. It is the most sacred spot on their island.

The Korean Navy estimates that the base will be completed in December of 2015. The blueprints describe a fifty hectare naval base that will house 7,000 soldiers, up to twenty-four warships, including two Aegis Destroyers, and six Nuclear Submarines. Considering that each destroyer has up to a 100,000 horsepower engine, it is difficult to see how the base can be considered safe for an ecologically sensitive environment. 7,000 marines will arrive in Gangjeong, a village with a population of 2,000. Villagers know that this project threatens to erase their entire community.

If they build it, the naval base will destroy parts of Jeju Island’s unique biosphere. The waters around the island are protected by international law because they are within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Already fewer than 120 Bottlenose dolphins remain in the island’s nearby waters. The largest soft coral forest in the world, off the coast of the village of Gangejong, has already started to die since construction began in 2011. Samsung has broken countless environmental laws in their rush to build the military installation.

Because of this, Jeju Island’s peace activists have put out an open call to anyone in the world who is willing to come and live in their village and witness the struggle firsthand. I responded to this call, traveling to Gangjeong Village, Jeju Island this past fall. I knew I had arrived by the waving yellow flags, high above the sidewalk declaring: “No Naval Base!” Because the activists are under constant surveillance by the government and many international supporters of their anti-naval base struggle have been denied entry to Korea, I was told not to inform anyone in the village of when I would arrive. As I peered into the Peace Center I hoped that someone there would be able to help me when I said I was a volunteer from the San Francisco nonviolence NGO Peaceworkers planning to stay for six weeks.

A woman named Silver showed me around the village that first evening. As we sat in the free restaurant for activists, a strong gust of wind blew through the room, knocking over large pots and pans drying on the counter.

“I hear Jeju Island is famous for wind.” I say to Silver.

“Yes,” Silver laughs, “Jeju Island is famous for three things: wind, rocks and women.”

“Lately when the wind blows, people think it will be a typhoon. We usually get typhoons every year between July and October, but this year we haven’t gotten a typhoon yet, so all the people are praying that it will come soon.”

Perplexed, I ask, “aren’t typhoons dangerous? Do you have to evacuate?”

“Yes, the typhoon is very bad for the tangerine farmers,” Silver replies. “It ruins all their crops and causes a lot of damage. But last year the typhoon badly damaged the navy base, so now, even the farmers pray for a typhoon.”

I would soon learn how much this typhoon prayer symbolized the state of Jeju Island’s demilitarization movement. With more than eight years of struggle against the construction of the naval base in the pristine waters of Gangjeong Village, the activists long for a force powerful enough to stop this destruction.

While 94 percent of the voters of Gangjeong Village voted against the naval base, the South Korean government has not recognized this referendum. When talk of building a naval base on Jeju Island began 12 years ago, the South Korean navy first approached Hwasun Village, to the east of Gangjeong. But when all of the rules and regulations were followed to hold a legal election, the vote was resoundingly against the project. Much of this can be attributed to the Haenyeo, the female divers of Jeju Island. The Haenyeo women have been diving for centuries in the East China Sea surrounding the island, gathering small fish and shells. The sale of their catch once powered the economy of Jeju Island. Jeju is a matriarchal island with the Haenyeo as its fierce community leaders. The Haenyeo are a force so powerful that there used to be a law on the books of Jeju Island that it was illegal for men to even look at them while they conducted their work in the sea.

So when the South Korean Navy approached Hwasun Village in 2002, the Haenyeo immediately saw the folly of accepting the project. It would most certainly contaminate their “sea field” where they “harvest their crops” of abalone and kelp. The Haenyeo unified the rest of their village to vote the navy out. In the second village approached in 2005, Wimi, to the west of Gangjeong, the result was much the same: no naval base.

By the time the navy came to Gangjeong, they planned a different approach, one that broke every village code in order to push through an illegal vote. Instead of holding a forum for the entire village, the navy discretely cajoled a handful of key villagers, including the Mayor, the Chairman of the Gangjeong Fishing Association, and the most influential Haenyeo divers. These handpicked few were given free trips to Hawaii to see how the U.S. Navy base there has supposedly increased tourism and created a booming economy. The Gangjeong elite were told that the navy wanted to make Jeju Island “the Hawaii of Korea.”

During this time the navy also deposited a sum of $7.8 million USD into the Gangjeong Fishing Association for “damage compensation,” which was distributed among the chosen Haenyeo. When it was time to hold the vote, only 87 people participated, and the Korean government’s tactics paid off, with a vote approving the base. The remaining 1,800 people of Gangjeong Village were completely unaware of this until it was announced on the evening news that they had voted in favor of the military installation, unanimously. By the time the shock wore off and the procedures for a legal village-wide vote were arranged and completed, in which 94 percent voted against the base, the Korean Navy had already handed over the $1 billion project to Samsung.

A common argument the navy advances is that the base will provide vital security for Jeju. But history shows otherwise. Any time a major military force has been present on the island it has led to death, displacement, and destruction of the local population. Never was this more true than during the genocide that took place after a small peasant uprising on April 3, 1948 that challenged the US occupying forces. Soon after ousting the Japanese occupying force on Jeju Island, the US initiated an election on Jeju Island to vote for dividing Korea into the North and South. As the locals were opposed to a divided Korea, they staged a small uprising against these elections. The US and South Korean governments promptly labeled Jeju Islanders as communists, and this is how they justified the scorched earth campaign that followed.

Under command of the U.S., the local authorities of Jeju Island ordered a brutal slaughter that left between 30,000 and 80,000 people dead. (Estimates vary as the bodies were buried in mass graves across the island.) The vast majority of the people massacred during 1948-54 were ordinary citizens of the island, not communists. The reverberating trauma of this incident most certainly explains why more of the island isn’t in open rebellion now against construction of the base. Ultimately the people of Jeju know that this base is not being built to protect them but is an escalation of tension between China and the US. Of course the base will also secure shipping lanes for the resource intensive South Korean corporations, including Samsung.


Many of the religious organizations of Jeju Island have resisted construction of the naval base by holding their ceremonies at the gates, blocking trucks laden with cement, iron, and other materials from entering. Every single day for more than three years, Catholic priests have held mass at the gates of the base, under order from The Bishop of Jeju, Bishop Peter Kang U-Il. All of the Catholic protests take place under his blessing. Every day, except Sundays, other activists bow 100 times facing the gates, praying for an end to construction, and for the larger awakening that all life is interdependent.

The naval base has entirely cut off public access to Gureombi Rock, where religious ceremonies have been held for hundreds of years. Gureombi Rock is the most sacred space in the village and the people of Gangjeong believe the rock is alive. As activist and former film critic Yang Yoon Mo explained it: “This is the only place on the island where rocks are friendly to people.”

Yang Yoon Mo fought for their preservation with his own body, climbing under construction trucks and laying down in their path. Korean authorities have imprisoned him 4 times, in 2010, 2011, 2012, and most recently in 2013 when he spent 18 months locked away for these acts of civil disobedience. During three of these imprisonments he went on lengthy hunger strikes. The longest was in 2011 when he nearly died while fasting for a total of 74 days.

The people of Gangjeong have a profound understanding that life on earth is not made up of individual destinies, but rather it’s all one interconnected whole. The wellbeing of one is inextricably bound to the wellbeing of another.

During my third week in the village, I watched as an elderly priest, Father Mun, stayed back at the end of the daily mass and continued to block the gates alone. The police officer directing traffic motioned for the construction trucks to drive through the gate anyway. A lumbering truck with wheels up to my shoulder sped at the gate and at Father Mun, screeching to a halt just short of crushing him. A few moments after the incident, I asked Father Mun if he ever felt afraid to put his body in the way of the trucks. He offered me the most deeply joyous grin, and said simply, “no, I am Gureombi Rock. You are Gureombi Rock. If I allow the navy to kill Gureombi Rock, it also kills me. It also kills you.”

As far as I could tell, he wasn’t trying to make some poetic and dramatic statement. He sincerely believed that these sacred rocks were as much a part of him as his physical body, and so he would continue risking his life to resist the destruction of his island and culture.

During the fourth week of my stay in the village, Jung Sun-Nyeo, the woman who leads the daily 100 bows, informed me: “the typhoon is coming tomorrow.” She paused, searching for the English words to explain further. I expected she would continue with something like, “there will be no activities at the gate tomorrow, stay inside,” but instead she told me with a cheerful smile, “we will celebrate the typhoon tonight here with drinks. You will come!”

The activists of Gangjeong Village understand that their fight against the largest naval base project in East Asia is not solely about protecting their island from being dragged into every future Pacific conflict. As they sing at the end of every daily mass: “Gangjeong you are the tiniest of villages/ but peace for all the world will come from you.”

While we recognize all their efforts to resist destruction, we must also recognize all their constructive efforts to promote peace. In addition to being famous for the presence of wind, rocks, and women, Jeju Island is also famous for the absence of three things: no gates, no beggars, and no thieves. All three of these symbolize Jeju’s very communal heritage and traditions, where everyone always took care of each other. The islanders share what they have with each other so there are no beggars, no need for stealing, and no gates. Their homes are open to anyone that needs shelter, and since there are no thieves there is no one to keep out with a gate.

During my six weeks in Gangjeong I was absolutely amazed by the culture of peace that thrives within that 1,900 person village. If we allow this navy base to overtake Gangjeong Village, it will not just be 1,900 lives displaced and a volcanic rock on the island pulverized into a launchpad for South Korean and U.S. militarism. Everyone on earth will lose this small island of peace, and we cannot afford to let what Gangjeong has to teach us be destroyed. As they pray for the typhoon, let us descend in waves from all corners of the world with our awareness and our action. Let peace live in Gangjeong and the world.

For more information about the struggle and how you can get involved, see

Mica Cloughley is the co-founder of Emergency Peace Teams (.org) and Empathy App (.org). She lives in Oakland, CA. Those interested in going to Jeju Island can contact her through the website