An island of peace says no to war
reports on a group of South Korean activists standing up to the drive by the U.S. and South Korean governments to build a massive new naval base.
WE ARRIVED by bus and stopped in the small town of Gangjeong on Jeju Island off the Southern coast of South Korea. Not quite sure which way to go, we took a few steps to the right and were greeted by colorful peace signs adorning a brightly painted, white fence made of cinder blocks. We had a feeling we were in the right place. A few paces later, posters taped to the sides of buildings informed us that we were in the Peace Village.
Following a stop at a local house to ask for directions, the owner helped us locate a person we were looking for, and we were led to a small headquarters building. A house once sat on this plot of land, but after the property was donated to the group, the house was bulldozed and the new, very simple headquarters building was constructed.
It is now home to the group struggling for the survival of a small piece of coastline bordering Gangjeong, where the U.S. and South Korean governments are combining forces with the Korean megacorporation Samsung to demolish the sacred coastal rocks of the Gangjeong people, all to build a deep-water port that reportedly will have the capacity to house 20 warships, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and Aegis Missile Defense destroyers along with 7,000 naval personnel.
All of these efforts have been enforced on a daily basis by Korean police flown in from the Korean capital of Seoul. Depending on the day and the intent, the police numbers have ranged between 100 and 1,000. They have used both peaceful and brutal means to disperse crowds and have sent protesters to the hospital and to jail with their tactics.
The air force has already bombed the coastline, destroying centuries old soft-coral reefs and potentially driving out a small pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that pass by here and are the only known pod in South Korea. The destruction has also endangered the red crab population and is impacting the fishing waters that have supported the nearby village, which has depended on local seafood for hundreds of years.
This area is reported to provide habitats for 400 plant species, 504 invertebrate species, 86 species of seaweed, 58 species of fish and a 7.4-hectare soft-coral forest. About a mile to the west starts the UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve of Tiger Island, its buffer zone directly in the path of ships that would be entering and exiting the proposed port.
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SITTING IN front of the two gates of entry to the construction site are Catholic and Jesuit priests and several South Korean activists waiting to be carried away, or possibly jailed, for their attempts to slow down the procession of cement trucks and workers coming in to turn the volcanic-rock coastline into cement platforms and piers for the deep-water port.
Ironically enough, UNESCO last year designated Jeju Island as one of the new seven most beautiful natural environments in the world. Another bit of irony is that several miles down the road is the 2012 World Conservation Congress where the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is holding its conference this year.
While today's human blockade will likely be nonviolent and end with activists being physically removed from the driveway entrance, protesters to date have been beaten, kicked, pushed and jailed. Several have required hospitalization.
This struggle--led by a relatively small core group of people asking that the militarization of Jeju Island cease--has been going on for five years while an apparently underhanded decision to allow continued construction has permitted huge cement tetrapods to litter the beach area for nearly a mile-long stretch. Each tetrapod has four long arms about four feet wide and six feet long that are joined in the middle.
In the midst of the unsightly tetrapods, front-end loaders, cranes and cement trucks can be seen transforming this once sacred and beautiful stretch of coastline into a steel and cement complex that will house U.S. and South Korean military weapons of mass destruction.
An April 2012 presentation by Global Ministries documents that of the 725 members of the village's 1,050 electorate who voted, 94 percent voted against the motion to permit construction of the base.
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TODAY, AS I watch the police begin to stretch in preparation for the clearing of protesters in order to let the cement trucks in, the tension builds.
The hour-long Catholic mass held every day except for Friday has ended, and approximately 150 police are marching toward one of the entrances. Photographers surround the six protesters, four lying and sitting on the ground with arms and legs intertwined and two sitting in chairs.
While I do not understand much of the Korean language, based on experiences in the U.S., it appears that the police have asked the protesters to clear the entrance. Some of the police carry batons, others have radios, and this time there is no riot gear in sight. The police have spoken to the protesters again, and the protesters have answered back, sitting motionless with calm resolve. They have been through this before--as many as five to nine times each day in their ongoing campaign to slow the progress of the cement trucks.
Eight policewomen march in step from the back of the police formation and surround two of the women sitting on the ground. I witness the police prying apart the tenacious embrace of arms and legs.
The activists are fighting for their coast, for their heritage and for their island, against the formidable force of corporate and government collaboration. The faces of the police are strained, and it is not an easy task for them to disengage the activists.
Once disentangled, the police lift one activist and forcibly carry her off to the side, obviously against her will. Immediately, about 25 male police break rank and surround her with a locked-arm semicircle, two to three deep, forcing her against a stone wall. The next line of eight policewomen march forward, and this process repeats until the three women activists are all confined in this temporary human containment unit formed by the police to prevent the activists from returning to their places at the entrance.
Eight men march in to lift the lone, struggling man from the ground and place him against the wall with the others. All of the police who participated are breathing heavily and seem relieved that this part of the clearing process is completed.
The two older activists who were seated are lifted in their chairs and set to the side of the driveway. One of them stands up, walks to the adjacent bridge and waves a flag that, roughly translated, proclaims, "The villagers will absolutely oppose the construction of this base until the day we die."
Once the gates open, seven cars exit and 19 vehicles enter, nine of which are cement trucks. The police suddenly make an about-face, release the entrapped activists, march back to their busses and cars and depart.
The clearing process took approximately 22 minutes and was considered a success by the activists. Typical clearings take from 10-20 minutes, and doing this five to nine times a day can delay daily construction efforts by an hour or two. In a month, this can mean nearly three days of time lost. I was told by one of the activists that the current cement company working at the site has committed to finishing its contract but after that, Samsung will have to find a new contractor since the cement company claims to be losing money as a consequence of the delays.
As the police exit the scene, the good-natured and peaceful activists calmly approach the gate and once again sit in their chairs and on the ground, educate passers-by, and patiently wait for the next opportunity to delay construction, hoping that somehow a halt will be called to the desecration of their natural surroundings and heritage. With smiles on their faces, they know that they have once more slowed down the giant.