Soon after arriving our delegation of five activists, which included some real notables in the South Korean movement for democracy and peace, we were brought to the offices of Jeju Solidarity for Participatory Self-Government & Environmental Preservation. There we were shown a most impressive 50-minute video about the struggle on the island to stop plans by the federal government to build a Navy base on the south side of the island. Jeju calls itself the “Island of Peace” and activists wonder how a Navy base, hosting Aegis destroyers outfitted with missile defense systems, could be considered a compatible use.
Three villages have been approached to host the base and the first two turned the government down. By the time the third village was asked the government had decided to offer bribes of $100,000 each to the respected sea diving women who are known for searching the bottom of the ocean for sea urchins which they then sell to make a living. The third village, Gangjung, is predominately opposed to the base but the bribes created enough of a division to cause the government to say they will build the base in this village.
Gangjung, like the rest of Jeju island, is most famous for growing tangerines in this tropical climate. Tourism is the second industry as people come from around the world to experience the wonders of the lush volcanic island. A long walking trail takes people across the island and recently the government has removed Gangjung from the walking trail maps so they can limit the numbers of people who would see the active signs of resistance amidst the splendid beauty of the rocky seaside where the proposed Navy base is to be built.
When I asked activists who the government said they needed the base to protect against the answer was followed by much laughter: pirates they told me. The truth is that the US will be jointly using the Navy base with the South Korean Navy as a port to deploy Aegis ships that will be used to help surround the coast of China and to give the US the capability to choke off China’s ability to import 80% of its oil through the Malaka Straight that flows right off Jeju Island.
The villagers of Gangjung do not see the Navy base as offering them much. Their local economy is thriving from the tangerine groves that are everywhere in the town and from the abundant numbers of tourists who come there to experience the seaside. In fact the Navy base would take significant portions of their village land now used for farming and would destroy the environment. The rocky shoreline would be covered with cement and the proposed base pier would extend to the edge of where the fresh water Gangjung River flows into the sea.
Kang, Dong Kyun, the mayor of the village and a key protest leader, told me that 70% of the drinking water for the community comes from the river and would surely be negatively impacted by the Navy base. Take away our water, he said, and you destroy the town.
Throughout the village you see many tall bamboo poles with yellow flags on them that say, “We desperately oppose the Naval base.” But no one in the government wants to listen to them. They have tried all the usual steps of meeting with government officials, organizing protests, and they recently tried to recall their provincial governor in a special election but did not turn out a high enough percentage of voters to make the vote official.
They’ve now set up a camp along the rocky coastline where some are now holding a round-the-clock vigil. More tents will be erected in the coming weeks as construction is set to begin at the end of this year. When I spoke to the village people in their community center last night there were key activists from other parts of South Korea who are trying to help.
I was deeply touched by the good people of Jeju. Mayor Kang told me, “This is the land of our ancestors that we must pass on to the future generations. This village must not be used as a ‘strategic’ base but must be preserved. The government is dividing people against each other which is the worst thing of all. The long lasting people will ultimately win.”
I told the mayor and the village people that because the proposed base would have Aegis destroyers homeported there, with missile defense systems on-board, that the Global Network must do all it can to help them with their valiant effort. Just as we did what we could to support the people in the Czech Republic last year in their effort to resist US missile defense deployments, we must do the same for Jeju Island. That is what solidarity means.
Who will speak for the fish, the coral, the rocks, or the water I asked? We must all do it.
It has been a remarkable journey to South Korea and one that I am proud to have taken. I have met splendid people who are doing their best to resist the destruction of their democracy by corporate interests, the destruction of their farming lands, and the expansion of militarism. There are many fights going on in the world that we all have to be concerned about, more than we can all handle I know, but every now and then one comes along that represents all of these important struggles in one bundle. That is Jeju Island.
I hope that once we get the Jeju Island video, expected in a few weeks, that all of you will get a copy from us and show it in your community. I promise that everyone who watches it will be moved beyond tears about the beauty and the wonder of the island of peace. We must help bring the struggle on Jeju Island to the world.
Bruce K. Gagnon is the Coordinator of Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space