Thursday, June 17, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 2: Swords vs. Plowshares

The highlight of today's trip is a visit to the city of Pyeongtaek to visit the Pyeongtaek Peace Center and also hear the latest news of that community's struggle against the expanding US military bases nearby. In 2006 there was a very big conflict between the residents of two villages who were to be displaced to expand the size of two bases, Osan and Humphreys. Over the years I have heard small snippets of information about what has happened there, seen images of violent repression by police, different tactics of resistance employed by the villagers, and the tragic faces of those who eventually lost their fight and their land.

I looked forward to learning more about this area and its history.

A note on the title of this post. The first image above is the logo for the Pyeongtaek Peace Center, and I find it a very creative variation on the famous Bible verse, now world peace and UN slogan:

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
In this case, instead of swords to plowshares, I see the people of Pyeongtaek asking that we turn fighter planes into flower pots, or that we use them as seed beds.

For those who are interested, one of the first thorough pieces of information I received about the fight against bases there was a short article written by Medea Benjamin in 2006, after she traveled to Pyeongtaek with Cindy Sheehan and 14 other US peace activists to join in solidarity with the people there.

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U.S. Military Expansion vs. South Korean Farmers
By Medea Benjamin
CodePink

When our US peace delegation entered the South Korean village of Daechuri, near Pyongtaek city, it was already evening. It isn’t easy getting into the village. Residents can only enter and exit through checkpoints set up by the South Korean military, despite the fact that the Korean National Human Rights Commission declared the checkpoints illegal and a violation of the villagers’ human rights.

Visitors are often prohibited from entering Daechuri, especially “troublesome” peace activists supporting the local struggle to stop the US military base from taking over the village. When our delegation arrived, we were met by an overwhelming force of some 200 police in riot gear! They had obviously heard that an international delegation, including well-known peace mom Cindy Sheehan, was going to attempt to enter the village and spend the night there. But perhaps because we were accompanied by a gaggle of press, after much back and forth between our Korean hosts and the police, we were eventually allowed in.

In Daechuri, we were ushered into a warehouse where over 100 villagers were holding a candlelight vigil. The most amazing thing about this vigil is that it has been going on every evening for over two years! Rain or shine, in the bitter winter nights or the sweltering summer evenings, the vigil is a constant. It’s a way for the residents and their supporters to come together and renew their commitment to keep trying—despite the odds—to save their village.

The vigilers, mostly elderly farmers, broke out in applause when we entered the room. While the U.S. military is scheduled to obliterate their village by the end of the year to expand its base at Camp Humphries, the villagers welcomed the solidarity from Americans. They laughed and clapped wildly when we ended our introductions with a popular Korean slogan we’d learned on the bus ride from Seoul, which sounds like “Georgie Bushie Chigura Donada”, or “George Bush, leave this planet!”

After the vigil, we were taken to several abandoned homes to spend the night and in the morning, we awoke to see what had once been a prosperous farming community. The land was flat and rich, spanning out across the horizon in neatly divided golden rice fields. The rice grown in this region is legendary for its high quality and commands a good price on the market. With much hard work over generations, the Pyongtaek farmers—who are both men and women—had been able to build middle class communities. For farmers in poor countries, these homes would look like mansions. They had electricity, running water, “ondol” (the traditional Korean under-floor heating system), and spacious living quarters. The home we stayed in had three bedrooms, two baths, a hearty kitchen and a spacious sitting area with a lovely inlaid wood ceiling.

But on May 4, 2006 the South Korean government, using the power of eminent domain, sent in over 20,0000 troops to demolish dozens of homes and the public school the villagers had so lovingly built for their children. So far, 81 homes have been demolished, and the 147 remaining homes are scheduled to be bulldozed by the end of 2006. And in November, 2006, in a further effort to drive the residents out, the Korean military built trenches and laid miles of razor wire fencing to keep the villagers from their fields.

For over three years now, the villagers and their supporters have been fiercely resisting eviction. They organized a tractor tour around the entire country, set up huge rallies of up to 10,000 people, and went on hunger strikes. They even chained themselves to the roofs of their homes to keep the bulldozers at bay. In the process, they’ve faced brutal police violence and repression. Over 1,000 people have been injured and over 800 people arrested. On November 3, 2006, Ji-Tae Kim, Dachuri village leader and Director of the Residents Committee against US Base Expansion, was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “obstructing government affairs.”

“The South Korean government is supposed to be democratic,” said Father Moon, a Catholic priest who has been supporting the villagers, “but it has beaten and jailed the villagers, demolished their homes, stolen their land by erecting a barbed-wire blockade to keep them from their fields—all to expand a U.S. military base that the people don’t need or want. It’s shameful.”
The expansion is part of the first major relocation and consolidation of U.S. troops in Korea since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. The U.S. and South Korea government came to an agreement to move U.S. forces stationed in Seoul and the demilitarized zone and consolidate them in two "hubs" in Pyongtaek and Pusan, both south of Seoul. The move changes the role of US forces in Korea from a defensive posture against North Korea towards a more flexible, rapidly deployable force for the wider Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. military refers to this as "strategic flexibility". The total number of troops will be lower—from 37,000 to 25,000 by 2008—but its technological capabilities will be enhanced.

The move to Pyeongtaek will put U.S. troops outside North Korea’s missile range, and the upgraded weaponry is designed to make the US military more efficient and better prepared for war with North Korea.

But many South Koreans we encountered feel that the expansion of US military's role is a provocation to North Korea, increases the tensions on the peninsula, and acts as a deterrent to the peaceful unification of North and South Korea. They also wonder why the U.S. needs to take up so much land for the Camp Humphreys base expansion if the U.S. troops are being reduced by 12,000. The Camp Humphreys base has already gobbled up 3,685 acres of prime farmland, and with the expansion it will almost double to 6,535 acres. Farmers were further angered when they discovered that part of their confiscated land will be used for an extensive leisure center for American soldiers, including an 18-hole golf course!

Prior to leaving the U.S., our delegation had requested a meeting with U.S military commander in South Korea General B.B. Bell or another appropriate representative to talk about the implications of the base expansion. Unfortunately, the meeting was denied. After seeing first-hand the devastating effects of the planned expansion on the Daechuri villagers, however, we decided to go directly to the base in Seoul to ask the U.S. military to reconsider our request for a meeting.

Instead of agreeing to a dialogue, the American officials closed the base gate, which is normally open for pedestrian traffic, and blocked our path with riot police. When we protested our exclusion, the military issued a terse memo saying, “While we respect and defend the right of American and Korean citizens to express their opinions, we have no specific statement in response to today’s impromptu protest.”

While our own U.S. military refused to meet with us, our friends in the village showered us with hospitality and kindness. They even painted a Cindy Sheehan/CODEPINK plaque and placed it outside an abandoned house that they designated as an international peace center. Kim Suk Kyung, father of imprisoned village leader Kim Ji-Tae, told us as we were leaving the village: "Many of us are elderly and this is the only home we know. We are determined to live and die in our village, and that’s why we need your help. Please go back home and tell your government to let us live here in peace."

Our delegation is returning to the United States determined to raise awareness and funds for the villagers, and to call on our new Congress to hold investigations into the U.S. military realignment in Korea. The expansion of the base will not enhance the security of the people of the United States or South Korea, but will only fuel militarization in the region and anti-American sentiment among those who believe, as we do, that the Pyongtaek villagers, who have been farming these lands for generations, deserve to stay there.

Medea Benjamin (medea@globalexchange.org) is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. To support the Korean villagers, go to http://www.codepinkalert.org/.

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