The idyllic island of Jeju off the southern tip of South Korea is the unlikely front line in a possible future military confrontation with China — as a major new naval base is constructed there despite determined opposition from peace activists who were joined by former U.S. intelligence analyst Elizabeth Murray.
By Elizabeth Murray
If someone had told me earlier in 2014 that I would be rising daily at 6 a.m. and by 7 a.m. performing a series of deep meditative bows before a massive naval base being built on the island of Jeju, just off the southern tip of South Korea I would have shaken my head in disbelief. Who, me? A non-morning person who knows next to nothing about South Asia? Sorry, wrong number!
But, for ten days in November 2014, there I stood, in the early morning, in front of the naval base bowing, kneeling, touching my forehead to the ground, and then rising up again, 100 times in a row, in unison with Korean nuns, priests, local activists, and my fellow members of the “Jeju 10” our group of ten “peace and justice” folk invited by Father Bill Bichsel, known as Bix, of the Tacoma Catholic worker to take part in a witness and solidarity mission to Jeju island.
It was Bix’s second trip to Jeju in solidarity with resistance against the base; both Bix and Brother Gilberto
Perez of the Bainbridge Island Buddhist monastery had come to Gangjeong in 2013. Having been deeply moved by the Jesuit and Catholic community’s strong support for the resistance movement, they decided to bring along an entire delegation this time!
Of course the village welcomed Bix like a dearly beloved grandfather; their affection was evident in the way they carefully tucked blankets around him on chilly, windy days as he sat in his wheelchair, holding up signs that read “No Naval Base on Jeju!” Later, that same genuine warmth and affection would be showered on us all.
We performed our daily deep bows in synch with 100 contemplative meditations broadcast in Korean over a loud-speaker set up in a tree across the road. Among the prayerful thoughts that we knelt and bowed to:
“Holding in my heart the knowledge that truth gives freedom to life,” I make my first bow.
“Believing that the first step toward solving any problem is self-reflection,” I make my second bow.
“Looking back upon my foolishness of living without understanding the root meaning of life,” I make my third bow.
And so on, till the hundredth verse. It is a reverent ritual, the embodiment of prayer in action. At times I seemed to be in an altered state; such was the feeling of the physical act of bowing down to the ground in a deeply spiritual and intellectual enmeshing of love and resistance against the military-industrial machine.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “Nonviolent resistance is a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love,” and that phrase embodied my state of consciousness.
Performing these deep bows can be physically taxing yet each time there was an ache or stress in my leg muscles, I thought about the pain and frustration of my Gangjeong village hosts who have been fighting this base for seven long years.
My little discomforts seemed trite and insignificant by comparison and they were something I resolved to bear cheerfully for the privilege of being a witness and a co-activist among these courageous resisters, who have seen their beautiful tangerine groves, pristine ocean life, and sacred sites such as Gureombi Rock sacrificed to corporate greed (Samsung has the primary corporate contact for the base construction) and the evil designs of Empire.
Perhaps more tragic than the loss of their farmland and environmental treasures has been the destruction of the village’s social fabric. Activists explained that the South Korean Navy, having been firmly rebuffed by two other villages approached as potential sites of the naval base, resorted to stealth, bribery and deception to obtain the consent of a key group of Gangjeong villagers for the construction of the naval base.
As a result, many families have been torn apart over the issue; there are parents and children who no longer speak to each other; longtime friends who turn the other way when they pass each other on the streets. The issue of the naval base has also divided the village haenyo, the women divers who set out in boats each day to collect the day’s catch of seafood (Jeju island has a matriarchal society, embodied by these strong, mostly middle-aged women who are the breadwinners of their families) and who once were a tightly-knit social group.
We’re told that some of the villagers who accepted bribes from the South Korean Navy of as much as $100,000 and who initially favored the construction of the naval base have come to regret their stance now that they witnessed the environmental degradation as well as the destruction of shrines and farmland over the years.
However, they have been warned that if they speak out publicly against the base, they will be forced to pay back all the money they received a nearly impossible feat for most, who live by simple work such as fishing and farming, and who could never hope to amass such a sum. In other words, people have been silenced through intimidation.
Despite staunch resistance over the past seven years to block construction, the base is roughly 70 to 80 percent complete. Activists are facing the unpleasant reality that the base is likely to be a fait accompli and have begun to discuss how the resistance will continue in the future.
Catholic Father Moon Cheong-Hyun a gentle, kindly, bearded priest in his middle 70’s who was badly injured in 2012 while protesting when a policeman pushed him off the side of the pier is overseeing the construction of a Peace Center that will become the focus of nonviolent resistance activities after the base is completed.
Already the activists have modified their tactics to be far less confrontational than they were at the beginning of the naval base construction; while thousands participated in vigorous protests when construction began several years ago, those numbers have dropped off, and the relatively small core of remaining resisters, after having endured multiple imprisonments after confrontations with authorities, have concluded that they can be more effective outside of prison than inside a jail cell.
Jeju’s strategic location a mere 300 miles from mainland China suggests that the new naval base will become a key component of the missile defense system that the United States is building up in the Asia-Pacific region as part of its “pivot toward Asia.”
While the South Korean government denies that the naval base at Jeju is part of U.S. strategic policy that confronts China, it is a well-known fact that, under the terms of its Status of Forces agreement, Washington can deploy its military forces at any South Korean military facility which will shortly include Jeju naval base and it is only a matter of time before U.S. naval personnel will become a fixture at the base.
The deepwater port currently under construction at Gangjeong village is being designed to accommodate multiple nuclear-armed Trident sub-marines, the Aegis destroyer combat system, naval carriers, and other massive warships.
The militarization of Jeju will greatly increase the likelihood that the tiny, jewel-like island with crystal clear waters home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a popular destination for nature-lovers and honeymooners will become a pawn in any future conflict between the United States and China.
This stark reality flies in the face of the South Korean government’s claim that the base is necessary for the South Korean people’s “national security.” Indeed, by ratcheting up regional tensions, the base’s existence will make the lives of people of Jeju Island and the South Korean mainland far less secure, and much more vulnerable to military conflict.
The population of Jeju Island is especially sensitive to the prospect of a U.S. presence on the island; between 1948 and 1949, at least 40,000 Jeju residents were massacred by South Korean forces that came under the control of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea.
This little-known atrocity is memorialized in a dramatically beautiful, poignant Peace Park, which our delegation visited. We learned that any mention of the post-World War II massacre was forbidden in South Korea until 2006, when former President Ro Moo-Hyun issued a formal apology to the people of Jeju and declared it an “Island of Peace.”
In a supreme irony, the following year the government announced that Gangjeong village had been selected as the site of a future naval base. Many South Koreans still remain unaware of the 1948 massacre; a young South Korean woman who accompanied us to the Peace Park expressed shame and anger that she had never heard about the massacre before, and that it was not being taught in the schools.
Just as with the 1948 massacre, the truth about the Jeju naval base and its negative social, environmental, and political impacts on the island is still very hard to come by. The mainstream media in South Korea and billboards on Jeju Island tout the base’s construction as an “eco-friendly” installation that will host cruise ships and attract tourists.
Little is mentioned about the military tensions this base is bound to provoke in the region, or the impact that 3,000 new naval base personnel will have on life in Gangjeong village, whose population numbers only 2,000. Efforts to construct new housing for navy personnel has been temporarily halted due to a 24-hour protest vigil in front of the site, amid strong local opposition.
Forward-thinking anti-base activists in Jeju have made common cause with fellow activists in Okinawa and Taiwan, as well as with the international community at large. They have learned about problems with drugs, prostitution, rape, and other ills that accompany the presence of U.S. naval installations in Okinawa and Taiwan, as well as on the South Korean mainland. They worry about the fate of their traditional community with the impending arrival of foreign military personnel at some point in the future.
Accompanying these threats to the villagers’ quality of life are the threats to marine life, including coral reefs, the Indo-Pacific bottle nose dolphin (now less than 114) and local fish. Pollution from the base construction has already destroyed much of the fish habitat in the immediate vicinity of the base, forcing the haenyo the women sea-divers who bring in the daily catch to the village to take their boats much farther out to sea in order to catch fish.
Harm to Jeju
Several prominent personalities from around the world and from mainland South Korea have drawn attention to the great harm that the naval base will bring to Jeju. Among these figures is the South Korean film critic Yang Yoon-mo, who permanently relocated to Jeju from the South Korean mainland to in order to draw attention the naval base construction and engage in acts of resistance against the naval base.
Father Bix visited Yang last year during Yang’s hunger strike while in he was in prison for opposing the naval
base. Yang, who has since been released, spoke to our delegation about his continued dedication to the resistance and discussed the reasons for his hunger strike (read more at www.savejejunow.org).
Following our morning action of 100 bows, we would breakfast together with the local activists, sharing stories and learning about each other. Later on, we would rejoin them in front of the naval base for the daily outdoor Mass and Rosary, during which we blocked the entrance to the gate for 15-minute intervals; police would then remove us by lifting up our chairs and carrying us to the side in order to let construction trucks pass.
As soon as they moved all of us and departed, we would re-position ourselves in the middle of the road. This sequence repeated itself until the Mass and the Rosary were completed, then the solemnity was broken up with joyful street dancing as we continued to prevent trucks from entering the base. The dancing is an integral part of the protest, to banish the inevitable frustration and anger that has manifested itself amid the materialization of the naval base.
The lively movements demonstrate the sheer joy that comes with resisting evil and standing up for life, love, and community even in the face of the overwhelming might of Empire.
The strong role of the Catholic Church in the resistance movement is embodied in the person of Bishop Peter Kang, who leads the Jeju diocese; a dedicated number of nuns and priests in the diocese is assigned full-time to the resistance activities. Their participation in the morning bows and the daily outdoor Mass provides a strong spiritual base to the resistance.
One afternoon our delegation traveled to Jeju City to have an audience with Bishop Kang. His fervent and unswerving dedication reminded me of the courageous Liberation Theology movement that swept throughout Latin America in the 1980’s, in which Catholic clergy joined together with the poor, oppressed and disenfranchised to stand up for their rights in a resolute but nonviolent manner.
Our motley crew of local and international activists was frequently a focus of attention to passerby. Passengers on tour buses craned their necks to see what the commotion was about. People frequently focused on me because of my dolphin costume (which I wore in order to draw attention to the endangered Indo-Pacific bottle nose dolphin), and they snapped photo as if we were tourist attractions or some unusual novelty.
At one point, a small boy of about three years old stopped by with his family and insisted on taking part in our communal street dancing to him this was clearly a party! Then, after pointing in my direction and asking his parents for approval, he rushed up to me for a big hug clearly mistaking me for a Walt Disney character!
It’s clear that the daily manifestation of peaceful resistance to the naval base has had a positive effect on the attitudes of many of the police and security forces assigned to monitor our actions. I was told this is why the authorities rotate the young policemen and policewomen who are brought in from the South Korean mainland on a regular basis; they fear they might “go native” and begin to sympathize with the nonviolent resisters.
Even so, their witnessing of our daily bows, prayers, singing and joyful dancing, as well as the unity and solidarity between the local resisters and the international groups that regularly visit Gangjeong, cannot but be an inspiration, and many of us noticed this clearly in their facial expressions and body language.
On the morning of our last day in Gangjeong, as I prepared my kneeling mat in front of the naval base for the prayer of 100 bows, a tight-lipped security guard who had silently observed our actions over the previous week, suddenly bowed and in perfect English greeted me with “Good morning.”
Caught off-guard, and not quite believing what I’d just heard, I responded with “Annyeong hasayeo,” the standard Korean greeting. He made direct eye contact, smiled, bowed again, and repeated in crisp English, “good morning.”
I have found great inspiration among the people of Gangjeong village and their resistance to the naval base, and have learned a great deal about the importance of peace, love, and solidarity in effective collective action. I remain optimistic that their nonviolent yet resolute ways will plant seeds for transformation that will bear fruit in the future.
May their steadfastness be an example to all of us who aspire to peaceful change, and may they continue to find support from all corners of the earth as they continue their quest for justice.
Elizabeth Murray served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council before retiring after a 27-year career in the U.S. government. She is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) and has been involved with Ground Zero since 2012. [This article originally appeared in the Ground Zero newsletter.]