Sunday, June 20, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 4: Activists of the Soil

One of the problems in their fight is that while most of Jeju may know about their resistance, news of this fight has barely reached the mainland of South Korea. This was something which I had heard two days earlier from Mr. Kang Sang-won in Pyeongtaek when he was talking about the difficulties in trying to get people outside of the immediate vicinity to care.

One of the problems with the rural struggles in South Korea against US base expansion is that the news of their fight barely reaches the large population centers of South Korea. For instance, while most of Jeju Island may know about the resistance of the villagers of Gangjeong or the city of Pyeongtaek may know about the resistance by local farmers, or even the citizens of Paju might know about the displacement of villagers in order to expand the Mugeon-ri training fields, but this news doesn't travel very far otherwise. I heard this most specifically from Mr. Kang Sang-won in Pyeongtaek when he was talking about the difficulties in trying to get people outside of the immediate vicinity to care. This is why at a meeting held today with Seoul based activists and activist groups, his number one concern was to see if any of them had any channels through which the struggle in Pyeongtaek could be more widely publicized.

Since South Korea’s population has become so urban and so concentrated in cities, the media has created a huge divide between urban and rural issues. The press in Jeju is very interested in the fight in Gangjeong and regularly covers is, but the mainland Korean press looks down on Jeju and its small island issues and does not pick up their stories.

As Mr. Kang Sang-Won put it, if the bases in Seoul were expanding the media would never stop reporting it, but when these things happen in the country, the media feels that only a handful of stubborn farmers are being affected, and that is nothing compared to the value larger US military bases would provide to South Korea as a whole. Implicit in this of course is the assumption that population centers, urban area and big cities are the modern, rational subjects of the nation, the interests and beliefs of whom (as opposed to the chenglong, stuck, local, rural subjects) can better stand in for the interests and needs of the entire South Korean nation. The people from the country cannot and do not understand these issues of larger national security, defense or economy.

Although this might not be something consciously considered, I suspect that part of this dynamic is also the displacement of rural subjects in order to better incorporate them into the modern South Korean polity and economy. One of the intriguing contradictions of any modern nation-state is that the “small people” who speak "vernaculars" and who tend to be of the soil or manggi gualo (maninedda’), they play an interesting role in being both the limit of the modern nation, its “rough edges” which always need to be smoothed over and educated in some way, yet are always also put forth and made icons of the culture, the heritage or the soul of the nation.

Farmers are folk, they are the rich veins of local, raw culture which can be tapped to produce larger manifestations of national culture. They are represented as the strength, the backbone of the nation, people who are pure from the ideological battles, and the politics of the nation. That is one of the reasons why when farmers or simple folk resist they tend to be oppressed in far more savage ways then might seem rational. The modern nation has a place for them, one which provides a cornerstone for the identity and consistency of the nation, when they reject that position and take up a different political position, an active one, you could call it in psychoanalytical terms, a sort of return of the Real. Akin to the inanimate objects which you use to give you identity and decorate the room inside your heart, suddenly coming to life and not only having some force of their own, but also making demands from within your very soul.

In South Korea the narrative in which these farming folk are reintegrated as a subject into the nation despite their politicization is through the re-indentifying of them not as agents or activists, but instead victims of activists. One of the ways in which the nation neutralizes the political potential of these acts is to blame them on urban or elite educated activists. To identify the source of the uprising or protest as not coming from that rich cultural gold mine of the folk, but instead coming from the corruption of it by peace activists, demilitarization activists, students, artists and so on. While researching online what I could in terms of English language coverage of farming protests against base expansion in South Korea, most coverage stated clearly that for instance in the case of Pyeongtaek, the majority of farmers accepted the compensation for their land and the need for it to be used for the defense of South Korea, the small minority that didn’t was incited to protest and resist by peace activists from South Korea’s cities and universities. In this way the image of the pure farmer can be maintained and saved from political corruption.

But despite this centrality of the farmer to the nation, these small, simple farmers are not nearly as economically useful to the nation. In fact they represent to the modern nation now, what indigenous people in the past once did. They are people who are too attached to the land so as not to understand how to properly use it. The farmer is so stuck to his or her land, that he cannot see the wider picture. He cannot see how that land could make more money if it were a shopping mall, or in the case of South Korean farmers, a US military base. In a way, even their displacement serves the larger interest of the nation, by getting the land they own and occupy into the hands of others from which more money can be made. Even the physical evicting of farmers can be economically important, since not only does the land get freed up to be used in more productive ways, but the farmers themselves are forced to join the larger economy of the nation, by renting apartments and by working other jobs in order to support themselves.


achakma said...

Great analysis of how traditional communities are viewed, used and abused by the contemporary society. Other examples are use of traditional dress in beauty pageants to represent their respective cultures, or traditional dress for staff of luxury resort establishments. To some people, culture is not a way of life. It is a commodity.

Thank you for sharing your trip to south Korea and Jeju.

I am trying to separate out the communities resisting US militarism but not being familiar w/the names & places gets confusing very quickly for me. Your stories give me rich visuals that will enable me to make the deeper connections.

Their stories are our stories. We can learn much from the communities you visited. In turn, we can join their forces to support the liberation of all our communities from the brutal and misguided policies and actions of war.

Malc said...

Guam Base expansion is a joint venture of the American, Japanese, and Guam governments and will accommodate the influx of nearly 35,000 military and civilian personnel.


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