Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Finakpo': Final Thoughts on My Solidarity Trip

I’ve been back in Guam now for more than a week since my South Korea trip. I’ll still be back-posting for the new few weeks as there is still so much more to say and blog about. Remember that you can easily access the posts for certain days of my trip by clicking on the appropriate tag.
Day 1: Seoul
Day 2: Pyeongtaek
Day 3: Gangjeong
Day 4: Seoul
Day 5: Mugeon-ri

As I think back on my trip I met so many fantastic people and heard so many tragic and inspiring stories. But when I was thinking back on what part of the trip stayed with me the most, or what is sort of that haunting excess, that sticks out and determines far more meaning now than it probably did then, one exchange constantly pops into my mind. It could be so many things: the beauty of Jeju, and the tinaiprisu of the fight of the villagers of Gangjeong, the tragic marks on the soul and skin of political prisoners, the way a people struggle with the division of their nation and its past history of colonization (and current history of militarization). The way in which people would take that division and that colonization and start a passion or a fire, an iron will of dedication, in either the direction of peace and reunification or of war and domination.

Interestingly enough, the thing which stayed with me most was an exchange that took place on the fourth day of the trip. That evening we had held a meeting with different peace and progressive activists in Seoul, learning from them as well as informing them about what the current situation is in the United States, Guam and Okinawa. Afterwards, one of the organizers of the meeting Mr. Kim Young-Je, Director of the Reunification Unit of the Korean Confederation of the Trade Unions, invited us all to dinner nearby. The conversation, like most during the trip was difficult since most people did not speak very much English and our delegation spoke absolutely no Korean. Our translator Sung-Hee was by that point exhausted from traveling from Jeju to Seoul earlier that day and then translating for several hours some very intense conversation. Although everyone at the meeting was to the Left or at least the center Left of most issues there were disagreements about things and so some of that emerged in the course of the meeting and the dinner afterwards.

For example, Bruce Gagnon, the delegate from the US and the coordinator for the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space had asked the activists at the meeting whether or not anti-capitalism philosophy or practice was represented in the activities of their groups. This led to a lot of discussion which sadly most of which was not translated, but I was told the gist of which was, that no, and some people questioned whether it was even possible to do such a thing, or whether it was advisable to seek to change such a fundamental condition of contemporary existence.

At the dinner another sort of bone of contention, a difficult topic was broached, again with much of the discussion going through Sung Hee for translating or simply remaining untranslated in a circle of English or Korean language. As I wrote about earlier, the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan in March is something which has made the lives of nearly all the people I met that day either difficult or impossible. Since many of them work on reunification activities, they have found their work threatened or stopped by the South Korean government. Mr. Kim, our host for dinner, wanted to ask Bruce, in more or less terms, how the people of the United States could be so stupid to believe what the South Korean government had said, blaming the incident on North Korea. He then went on to say, more or less, that what good was solidarity, or rather was it even possible to have solidarity when the United States was the source of so many problems in the world, but was populated with people too stupid to see through such obvious Gulf of Tonkin-type-lies.

Bruce agreed with Mr. Kim to some extent, but also countered that what was needed was for more solidarity work from within communities such as South Korea. He said, that everyone he knows, who is critical or progressive minded in the US is working on twenty different things, and that getting to everything and fighting every fight is impossible. He asked Mr. Kim as well as others present to help him get the word out, by increasing the amount of information that they sent out on their projects or struggles in the English language. He noted that almost everything he knows or has shared with others about militarization and South Korea comes from Sung Hee’s No Bases Korea blog.

More arguing was made on both sides, with different people, including myself joining in. Eventually the point which really struck me was when Mr. Kim made an argument which I had heard others touch lightly upon in both South Korea and elsewhere, but which crystallized some thoughts in my head about my trip. He said that people in the United States should see the connection between peace (gi este na mundo (todu i tano' siha)) and the Korean peninsula. He said, that people in the United States should see that peace on this peninsula means peace in Asia which means peace in the world. He said, that if you can “solve” this problem of the two Koreans, if you can reunify them, then you can diffuse the situation and weaken the superpowers who are playing very dangerous games with this place as the battleground.

When I heard this, I immediately though back to Thomas Friedman’s thesis from The World is Flat. Changes in technology, markets, governments have all led to this idea that the world is less divided than it used to be and that things move in easier ways than ever before. The result is that the world has therefore a feeling of being flat, smooth, where people, capital, finished goods, raw materials, media all move in smooth and seamless ways. That these changes, has resulted in the flattening of the world and created the conditions of globalization as we know it. Friedman’s thesis is a positive one, since as he sees it, countries small and large all have equal access to this world, since it has no hills and valleys which only the strong or the large might be able to surpass. Since it is flat, anyone can make use of this globalized world.

As so many people have already pointed out, Friedman’s thesis is puru ha’ take’ or take’ toru. For a small group of people and corporations in the world today, the world is very flat. One class of people who enjoy this flatness are known as “flexible citizens.” This system known as globalization makes it very easy for them to move, be cosmopolitan and live hybrid global lives and then to make money off of the existing inequalities in the world order. For everyone else, it may feel flatter in some ways, such as when I was in Seoul I was watching Fox and E! Network, but at the same time the system is very much set against certain bodies crossing certain borders, certain economies developing in ways which reduce the profits for those at the top of the world order, and so on.

But when I was at that dinner with the Seoul activists I didn’t directly think about Friedman’s argument, but more so that notion that he built it upon, where the world has become flattened, where playing fields have become level where a wide range or diverse number of things become equal.

In a sense, when myself or any other privileged 1st world subject looks at the world, it is very easy to see it as flat, even in terms of oppression or domination, or the violence which is exported in order to keep the prosperity or comfort of the first world and its related territories. The world is full of so much suffering and problems, large and small forms of violence, it is very easy to see it all as just one massive, never-ending flat expense. That there is so much, in so many places, that it appears flat, like no one can actually be more important than another, that they either all have to be dealt with at the same time or none at all, or a little bit here and there and nothing more. The flatness of the world leads to paradoxically feelings of convenience (it is easier to “support” causes than it ever was before, there are plenty of aid networks which are ready and willing to take money or take a signature) but also feelings of powerlessness and apathy (since there is simply too much and no matter what you do you can’t make a dent, there is always some other tragedy next door).

But as I said, the appearance of the world being flat or flatter is just what I said it is, an appearance. Just as the economies of the world may be more intertwined than ever before, this does not mean they are equal or fairer. The same goes for injustice and the fight for peace or against militarization and war. Not all struggles are equal and so there are places on this planet, where the machinery or the possibility of war build up even higher. We can argue about where, we can base our arguments on which places have more bases, which have more weapons, which are fighting against each other, or even which have more water or other natural resources or raw materials. But all of these things indicate that the map of the world for those seeking peace is not flat at all, but tends to build up and create massive mountains in some areas. If you gauge militarization by outright war, than you most likely see the most important mountain to bring down in the Middle East. If you see this map differently as one of bases and projection of power, then maybe you’d want to focus on small almost invisible bases in Central Asia or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. If you see, peace as an issue of empowering smaller countries to resist neo-colonialism and to reject the pathetic ways in which globalization brings them to the table (as cheap labor and cheap raw materials), then you might see the main battlegrounds in Latin America or Africa. Finally, if you see this map in terms of the next big war and potential clash between titans, then you might see the Eastern coast of China, Taiwan, Okinawa, South and North Korea, and to a lesser extent Guam as the key mountain to be toppled.

The point however is that whatever stance you take, there is not really an entire world to contend with, but rather a set of strategic choices. Some will appear to be easier than others, but one of the most obvious lessons which history should teach us is that the difficulty, ease, possibility or impossibility of something happening has very little to do with whether or not something happens. And so we should never limit ourselves by which fights seem easiest or which fights seem most impossible. US forces never imagined that the Chinese could fight them off in the Korean War, the US military did not imagine for decades that it could lose the Vietnam War, US military planners might have assumed they’d have bases in the Philippines for the next thousand years, and similarly enough they might have assumed that moving troops from Okinawa to Guam would have been the easiest thing in the world. Hassuyi, este i sekretun i manakhilo’ siha: maseha na lugåt ni’ nai i mas ti ikak’on hao, gaige guihi i mabuenå-mu lokkue’. Gof posipble yan ti posipble sumisha todu tiempo, kalang i dos na måta gi un sentenemos.

To continue with the map, cartographical and mountain and valley metaphors, when we look at the Asia-Pacific region we can see a huge set of mountains, an entire range of peaks. The variables involved make some easier to scale than others, but in the mind of Mr. Kim, the highest of all was on the Korean peninsula. And that if you took care of other peaks, if you were to for instance get rid of US bases in Japan or in Guam, it would be significant, but it wouldn’t revolutionize the region, it would not destabilize and cause to shattered and crack these terrain as in the movie 2012. So while Mr. Kim recognized that other places have roles in the struggle or problems of their own, he was arguing that getting US bases out of South Korea and reunifying the Korean peninsula is something that would benefit the entire area, not just South and North Korea. Its ripples would be far greater than if simply Guam was liberated or Okinawa was finally released from the yoke of its bases.

Although I have heard so many people, from so many different regions each assert a particular cause (usually their particular cause) as having the same Achilles’ Heel quality, in terms of the Asia-Pacifc region, I would have to agree with him. If the Korean peninsula could be demilitarized and reunified it would mean not only a huge victory for them but for the struggle for peace, dialogue and demilitarization around the world. The Korean peninsula is one of those hotspots which threatens in the near future to trigger a global nuclear war, or at least a regional nuclear war. It is a place where the US is rapidly militarizing in the hopes of not just securing the peninsula, but also gaining an advantage against China, boxing it in and containing it, as well as gaining perfect strike positions for targets deeper in the Asian continent. To lose that place, that conflict and those drawn sides, from which so much of the American argument for its status as a global policeman is culled from, would be incredible. It would be a huge blow. As it is now, China and North Korea as signifiers for hatred, enemies, targets for war and threats, are the means through which a President, a Defense Contractor, a slew of war hawks or anyone else needs to justify more militarism, more money for military project and more massive missile or military projects on the land of poor farmers in other countries.

Although I would admit to this assessment that the Korean problem is the biggest problem, the one which represents the most danger and the most hope if it can be resolved, it also shows the need for larger solidarity. Throughout my trip in South Korea, when speaking to various activists working for peace or working against the expansion of US or South Korean military projects in their communities, I felt myself constantly reminding people that even if we don’t feel connected to each other, we very much are. Even if myself, the people of Guam and the people of Gangjeong or Pyeongtaek don’t see ourselves as part of the same imagined community, our lands and the strategic value they represent are imagined together. Planners, analysts, Admirals, Presidents, Joint Chiefs, they imagine all our lands and the lands of millions of others as either pieces on their chessboard, or the very chessboard upon which they play their war games.

So as I said more than once, the reason for solidarity, the reason to imagine ourselves as being connected, is first, because we really are already connected, and second, because that way we can see the larger picture of things, and know how in this battle of peace against militarism, the victory of one can easily be the tragedy of another. When people protest in Okinawa or South Korea about how they don’t want US bases there, Guam is always discussed sometimes seriously sometimes in a fantastical way, as being the solution to everyone’s problems. As the compromise which can make just about everyone (including the people of Guam) happy. Solidarity is crucial for those whose commitment to an activist project or to progressive, peace orientated or demilitarized politics as not solely being about my comfort, my land or my betterment only. It is that which widens our gaze, so we can engage in larger struggles for justice, peace and decolonization and not simply export or transfer violence or oppression from one unwitting and helpless place to another.

I can I see myself as having a significant role in helping make this clear to those on Guam and as many as I can reach in the world. To disrupt the usual way in which Guam is imagined, a tiny, dependent piece of the United States, which has nothing other than a shattered culture with an island full of people ready to give it up at a moment’s notice to become more American. To not only travel to places like South Korea to share Guam’s story of past and continuing colonization, but also to do my best on the internet and elsewhere in ensuring that the stories that give Guam meaning out there for the rest of the world, do not revive the same old nasty colonial tropes, that they do not reproduce those limiting ideas of Guam as tiny, meaningless, except when the United States needs it to project power. But instead Guam be given a more progressive, a more critical and more peace-infused tale, through which it is no longer simply the solution to the problems of militaries in the US and Asia, and no longer just the tip of America’s spear, but a battlefield for peace (like Jeju an island of peace), a site which rather than pushing and escalating the world towards more war and more violence, can help stall that trend and reverse it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 5: Worst History Lesson...Ever

On my last full day in South Korea, after traveling north to hear about the struggles against the expansion of the Mugeon-ri training areas, I had a few hours to myself, to do whatever I wanted with. After five days of tightly scheduled trips, visits, meals and transportation adventure, I really appreciated being able to explore on my own for a bit, the area I was staying in Seoul.

I did not know my way around Seoul at the start of the trip and I still don’t know much about its geography, except for the little area near downtown that I was staying in. In my little area I could tell you where almost anything was (so long as its signage contained some English letters or images which indicated what was inside). I could tell you how many Dunkin Donuts were in the area and lead you to all of them, and could show you were the three music stores that I had found were, and even the chick place, which has a sign where a friendly looking chicken invites you to come in and partake of the flesh of his comrades.

There was one part of this area which I had wanted to get a closer look at, but hadn’t been able to because of our delegation’s busy schedule. I had passed by a smaller park earlier on the way to the SPARK Sit-In, and I had glanced in it to see a photo exhibit of the Korean War, complete with a flag display of almost every nation on earth. One of the things that was keeping many of the people I met in South Korea on edge was that an important anniversary, one which was part of the reason that Rightist, conservatives and militaristic interests in the country seemed to be gaining strength and boldness as of late. That anniversary was June 25th and the start of the Korean War.

As that anniversary approached I saw, as I traveled, more and more slogans of remembrance, thanks, aggression towards North Korea and devotion to the United States. The US embassy which was close-by the exhibit had a massive towering banner which featured a surprisingly ambivalent looking South Korean soldier with flowers growing out of his battle helmet, with English and Korean words towering over him, which shouted into the void of the world and history, that “We Remember…The 60th Anniversary of 6.25.” From my own research and study I knew that these sorts of exhibits could often unintentionally reveal a lot of the ideological or discursive tendencies in contemporary South Korea. That an exhibit like this, which no doubt leaks a sort of ideological certainty, an overwhelming rightness to this Rightist position, will in that certitude leave itself wide open. It will make clear the gaps in its rhetoric and reveal the weakness of its own position.
The exhibit featured more than a hundred large archival pictures from the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as a few from more recent years. Each large picture sported a different flag of a country from around the world. At first, the flags bewildered me, because I had no idea if they were chosen randomly or if the flags of specific countries were meant to accompany certain images. One of the things which immediately jumped out at me was the attempt by the creators of the exhibit to portray the Korean War as a war of “the world” against the North Koreans and the Chinese. Great pains were made to show that 15 troops came and served from this random country, and a squad came from this other country, and that all along the way, the United Nations was shepherding the process along, and protecting freedom and democracy against tyranny. The flags were an effort to reinforce that logic, but the message was a bit muddling along the way.

For instance, then flags of the most supportive nations of South Korea during the war, were given the prime location at the exhibit’s diegetic starting point. But scattered through the exhibit were also the flags of current and past communist states, or in other words current enemies of the United States and its allies around the world, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. (I later learned that these current enemies in the past had provided some material aid to South Korea during the war).
The narrative of the exhibit was tireless in its support for the brains, the tactical genius and the valor of the United States, UN and South Korean forces, while equally merciless in its portrayal of North Korean and Chinese forces, which were only portrayed as captives or retreating forces. The reason why I titled this post “Worst History Lesson…Ever” is because frankly this exhibit was a horrible history lesson. At the start of the exhibit it indicates that the Korean War lasted from June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953. The vast majority of the images which I saw took place in either 1950 or 1951 and chronicle the run-up to the US and Allied forces invasion of South Korea and them pushing back the North Koreans. I could not find a single image which told about the Korean War in either 1952 or 1953 or which mentioned how after the UN and US forces invade North Korean territory, they are then pushed back by North Korean and Chinese forces.

This sort of ideological glass house appears to be clear and obvious from a particular set of perspectives, but if you step out of that position the holes in the narrative are obvious. The expectation from the creators of this exhibit is that you follow the flow of their argument and that you fill in the holes based on the almost oppressive forms of evidence they offer. First the historical and contemporary idea of North Korea and China vs. the world. Second, the idea of America as being a military genius and powerful nation who liberates and helps the suffering South Koreas, victimized and torn apart by communism and war. Third, the story of this war becomes one of triumph and victory, and not the eventual tragic stalemate that it became.

You are meant to fill the gap with your own insecurities about war, hatred towards North Korea and communism and also a gratefulness and love towards the South Korean government and the US military. You don’t need to learn the rest of the history, because we’ve given you what is important and most importantly what you can use to judge the present and the relationship between the two Koreas. The choice is thus clear, no to the reunification or dialogue with North Korea, yes to more military and whatever plans the US has for the country. But, if you resist this temptation even slightly, the holes in the story are clear as day. The gaps in the narrative don't lead to certainty, but rather gut-wrenching questions about what is missing from this history lesson and why is it not there?

One of the most haunting aspects about this terrible history lesson, was the way its sinthomatic phrase was not hidden away somewhere waiting to be teased out, but blazoned around for all the world to see and memorize. The title of this exhibit and the thread which gave it meaning and a political message was that “Thanks Runs Forever.” Most countries would be fearful of making such a blatant case for eternally subverting yourself to the control of another country, but from this extreme Right position, that is the reason for Korea’s existence today and the point of it as well. Without that which this exhibit thanks, the historical and contemporary intervention that this exhibit chronicles, South Korea would not exist as it does today. For those of you who believe in dialectics, then this notion of “Thanks Running Forever” is literally hell. It is a place of being stuck in a relation and never moving to the next level, but of always cowering in fear that to take this relationship, to question it, challenge it, or even just change it, might reveal some malicious trap door in the floor and drop you into oblivion. It is for that reason that this idea that “Thanks Runs Forever” is an ultimate manifestation of conservatism. It is this fear to move on, to admit that thanks cannot run forever, to be stuck in a place of timeless fear and desperation. When I would ask about what sorts of ideas and images drive Rightist discourse in South Korea, I heard a number of different answers from those I spoke to. One image however was regularly cited as one reason why some conservatives in the country could be so viciously and almost unthinkingly pro-American. People described typical scenes of war desolation; cities and villages wiped out, the earth so scorched that people would rather forget it exists than touch it and attempt to grow anything on it. American and UN forces would appear and supply these villages with food, water, materials for building, and for so many South Koreans it was like you had been saved from living in Hades, that someone had given you the freedom from a hell that you didn’t ask for and didn’t know how you had been condemned to. That was the place in which that sort of conservatism could easily be born and bred. That was the place where the smallest gift, appeared like mana from heaven, and where a cigarette, a chocolate bar, a can of Spam, or a bottle of Coca-Cola or Pepsi could be the evidence that one would need to feel like my thanks for this should be eternal.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 4: PSPD Report

There were a number of things which overshadowed my trip to South Korea, and when I say overshadowed, I mean things which would constantly appear, be brought up or dictate the conversation regardless of where I went. For instance, the World Cup was huge while I was in South Korea and so everywhere I went, people were talking about it or sporting their pride in their national sport's team. Another issue was reunification and how recent elections this month have helped diminish so many hopes for progress on the re-uniting of the two Koreas.

One issue however, especially in conversations with South Korea activists, whether in Seoul, Paju, Pyeongtaek or Jeju, which was always very prominent and had so many people angry, frustrated or on edge was the sinking of the South Korean military ship, the Cheonan in March.
The ship was participating in joint training exercises with US military forces, when it ran aground and split in two 58 of those aboard survived while 46 died. The South Korean government and much of the world was quick to blame North Korea, even prior to any investigation on the matter. Eventually in May the South Korean government released a report stating that, "The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.” On June 1st, a South Korean NGO, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy released a report of its own, which called into question the government's finding and also called on the government to be more transparent with how it had come to its conclusions. The PSPD's report revolved around 8 questions that they felt together pointed at clear holes in the South Korean Government's case and required that more transparent investigation needed to take place. Here are their 8 questions from their report:

Question 1. Had been really a torpedo-induced water column?

Question 2. No such severe injuries evident of a torpedo explosion found in the bodies of survivors and deceased soldiers

Question 3. Is it true that there is no TOD recordings from the early stage of the Cheonan incident?

Question 4. There are no severe damages evident of an explosion on the severed surface, on the bottom of the ship and in the interior of the hull.

Question 5. Why the military concealed the finding and refloating of the gas turbine room? And why did they omit the investigation of the gas turbine room from investigating?

Question 6. Were the oxidized aluminum substances, not gun powder, evident of an explosion?

Question 7. What is the profile of the YONO class submarine? Is it understandable that the submarine had not been followed for several days by the ROK and the U.S. surveillance?

Question 8. Why couldn't a torpedo launch be detected?
Furthermore, they also released as part of their report, six problems that they found with the process by which the South Korean government conducted their investigation:

Problem1. The military not disclosing and censoring basic information on the Cheonan vessel

Problem2. Hiding of the TOD video-recordings of the Cheonan breaking into half and sinking and changing of words

Problem3. Imposing political and legal measures and restrictions against ordinary citizens raising doubts

Problem4. The JIG practically excluding civilians

Problem5. The JIG that limited investigative efforts by civilian members

Problem6. Unknown roles of the foreign investigators


The reasons for why South Korean peace and progress activists would be frustrated about this issue should be obvious. Most of them are invested in different ways of moving their country towards reunification with North Korea, the opening up of their society and government, and the decreasing of the foreign military base in their country, and the breaking of US military hegemony in the region. The Cheonan incident has been used to prevent movement in any of those directions and has in the minds of so many I talked to, set things back.

Trade between the two Koreas has now been cut off, with no goods allowed to cross from the South to the North. The rhetoric of both North and South Korea has become more aggressive, but this is far more true on the South Korean side, as the current government has become emboldened by the fact that they feel like the world is on their side of this issue and so they can be more brazen. The six-party talks which have been slowly moving forward for so long will now be setback quite a ways. Peace in this sense has definitely taken a hit.

Both the South Korean government and the US government have used this incident to argue for more US presence on the Korean peninsula, thus further militarizing an already very militarized society. One of the reasons why people everywhere should be concerned about increased militarized by the US in this region, is that so much of what the US is planning is with the intent of "boxing in" or containing China, its military and its influence. The various plans which the US is working on in places such as Jeju, Pyeongtaek, Taiwan, Guam and Okinawa are all part of a larger, dangerous strategy of forcing the hand of China, through the rhetoric of "defense" and "deterrence." An event such as this, when blamed on North Korea becomes a contemporary Gulf of Tonkin incident, which can be used (regardless of what the facts are) as the basis for offensive escalation in the name of defense.

As a Gulf of Tonkin style catalyst, the whole American hegemony of this side of the Pacific is maintained, and that lovely fantasy that American military planners and PR people have of being a safety umbrella or a shield to protect people here from threats, suddenly appears to be true and necessary. Such is the case of Japan, Okinawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose government, before he resigned, used the Cheonan ship incident as one of their best talking points for why the bases in Okinawa needed to remain in Okinawa.

Now for those who don't know, South Korea has a National Security Law, whose core tenant is that anyone who sympathizes or helps the North Korea government or North Korea in general can be arrested or imprisoned. Over the past few days I have met many, many people who have been arrested and imprisoned because of this law, and amongst peace activists in South Korea it is the bane of their existence. Anything which they do, can in some way be construed by the South Korean government as helping North Korea and they can wind up in jail because of it.

After compiling their report, the PSPD submitted a copy of it to the United Nations Security Council, where South Korea has been lobbying furiously to get sanctions set against North Korea. Submitting of these sorts of reports to the UNSC is common and usually pointless, but the South Korea government did not think so, and has been threatening the PSPD with prison, lawsuits and has been saying very bad things about them in the press. In their international call for solidarity and help sent out last week, the PSPD collected a list of attacks that had been made on them by government officials:
On June 15, 2010, the Grand National Party, Spokesperson, Hae Jin Cho stated that “PSPD’s behavior is a typical enemy-benefiting behavior… Harsh constitutional measures must be imposed on those who try to sell/betray the country while hiding behind the freedom and democracy.”

On June 15, 2010, the Grand National Party’s floor leader, Moo Sung Kim stated that “I think that (such behavior) is enemy-benefiting behavior that threatens the identity of the Republic of Korea and injures our national security… Even though South Korea is a democratic country guaranteeing freedom of expression, I cannot tolerate such irresponsible, pro-DPRK conduct benefiting the enemy… PSPD should voluntarily dissolve… (PSPD) must pay price.”

On June 14, 2010, the spokesperson of the Blue House stated that “this is a shameful and worrisome situation… I really want to ask PSPD their underlying purpose in engaging in such behavior.”

On June 14, 2010, the Prime Minister Un-Chan Chung stated that “I wonder of what nationality they (PSPD) are. Such actions are against national interest. It (PSPD’s actions) dishonored and shamed our country.”

On June 15, 2010, the 2nd Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chun, Yung-woo replied for the question “Are there any cases that a NGO sends a contrast position paper against the government on the security issue”, “ I have never heard of that there are such NGOs, and document sent by a NGO cannot be a UNSC document.”

The South Korean government has since released an official response to the claims of the PSPD and I'm still looking for an English language copy of it. In the meantime, right-wing elements in the country have been regularly protesting outside of the PSPD's office, and from reports that I've read, they have tried to break into their building, thrown eggs at them, and one man even attempted to drive a truck filled with gas tanks and paint-thinner into the building, perhaps with the intent that it explode killing everyone. While the PSPD has gained alot of negative attention from this, they have also gotten lots of positive attention as well. Within a few days after filing their report, they increased the size of their membership by several hundred, as at least 1/3 of South Koreans do not believe their government on the Cheonan ship issue.

One of the most intriguing things about this case, and the way it reveals how delicate things are for the South Korean government here, or how much they seem to hide, is that the PSPD's actions were not radical in almost any sense of the word. After reading through their report, it is not radical at all, and after talking to activist about what kind of organization the PSPD is, all said that it is basically a center-left group and not at all far-left or extreme. It is in instances like this where you have to really wonder what the South Korean government is attempting to hide or why it feels like it cannot allow dissent on this issue? Different conspiracy theories abound, I heard plenty of them around South Korea, but regardless of what the truth is on this issue of what happened to the Cheonan, it is clear that the South Korean government is determined to be more militaristic and more aggressive, and true or not, this issue is one which allows it to pursue that course more easily.

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.

SK Solidarity Trip Day 4: My Life as a Korean Soap Star

As I've regularly said over the course of these posts, being in South Korea for a week and not speaking any Korean at all was very frustrating. I had the help of a few guides and interpreters, but wandering around areas of Seoul on my own was a very strange experience. Most people in Korea knew some English, usually enough terms in order to conduct a brief greeting or manage an exchange of currency for goods. What made it a very weird experience is that so many people weren't sure who I was or what I was. Many people actually assumed that I was Korean, a bit odd looking, odd dressing, the facial hair was a bit strange, even for young people, and the clothes. The tattoos on my arms marked as a rough type, or a privileged kid trying to pretend to be rough. They were just English characters, not long stretches of skin like canvas and so I wasn't in the mafia or something.
Most people spoke to me in Korean and would smile and be very friendly, and then change the moment they realized that I wasn't Korean because I couldn't speak Korean. The most interesting experiences were when I would go into one of the seemingly infinite number of tiny conveinence stores across Seoul, some part of large corporations some owned by families. I would purchase some drink and they would smile and talk to me as I walked around the store. But when I got up to the counter and spoke and rifled through my pockets from my wads of won, the mood changed. I was astonished at how many cashiers, especially women young and old, proceeded to reach out, grab my money and count it for me, taking what I owed.

After I while I actually considered learning a little bit of Korea and pretending to be from some mythical southern province or island, where we speak Korean with a bit of an accent and thus proceed to make up a bunch of "Korean-sounding" words. I would stroll around Seoul like some educated, English-speaking, gangsta, country-bumpkin. I would speak primarily in grunts, head and hand gestures, but eventually toss in some fancy Korean and English words (not really used properly) in order to pretend that I'm not from the halomtano'.

As I'm writing this, I've come back to Guam and already several people have asked me about my trip and whether or not people mistook me for being Korean. I never really thought I "looked Korean" in anyway shape or form, but after looking at myself really closely in the mirror I guess I could see some reasons why people might think I could be. Eventually, someone asked me not only if I had been mistaken for being Korean, but if I was mistaken for a particular Korean person, namely an actor, Ji Jin Hee. She said that I looked just like him, particularly with my facial hair and without my glasses, from his role in the Korean period drama Dae Jang Geum. I went online to check out some pictures of him and found a few and have included them in this post, with some Chamorro word bubbles. I don't think I look like him, but I'm intrigued that some people might see a resemblance.

Since getting back to Guam I've given some thought to all the moments when people in South Korea were staring at me or taking random pictures of me. At that time I thought it may have been about my hair or my clothes or something else, but now I wonder if any of them were staring because they actually thought I might have been a Korean soap star? Right now I'm on the verge of creating a false memory from Seoul. In this memory I was in a tiny music store in Jongnu, looking for a T-ara CD for my brother, when I heard a group of old ladies behind me whispering something and sneaking some pictures of me. Yes, hunggan ayugue i hinasso-ku. Hunggan, hu hahasso ayu! In ten years time when I'm reflecting back on my South Korea trip, I'll have this hysterical story which will come with sound effects and me acting out the motions of old Korean women taking pictures and giggling, and it'll be all about my short, oh so brief, life as a Korean Soap Star.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

SK Soldarity Trip Day 3: Gambling With Governors

Our first visit in Gangjeong village took us to the Mayor’s office. There were spent more than an hour meeting with the Mayor, discussing the latest news in Gangjeong’s fight to prevent the building of a Navy port along their coast. Members of his staff and people from the village later took us around the southern part of the island to give us a history lesson and also show us some of the other sites of militarization on Jeju.

On our walk to the Mayor’s office, I was intrigued to see dozens of houses with tall bamboo poles and small yellow flags. I asked Sung-Hee what the meaning of the yellow flags was, and she said that those houses belong to people who are against the military buildup to in the village. As I walked around, I realized that the majority of the houses had them, some even had several banners, I guess to really really emphasize their disagreement with the construction of the Navy base.

Meeting with the Mayor and his staff was good in terms of giving us a brief history of the struggle and some of the local politics involved. For instance, the current governor of Jeju island was strongly supported in his career by the villagers of Gangjeong, but all of that changed however when he made the decision to build a deep-water Navy port which would displace farmers and destroy the beautiful coral reef-life off the coast of Gangjeong. Apparently, three potential sites were chosen to put this Naval facility, the other two larger areas rejected the plan, but Gangjeong because of its smaller size, with less chance for resistance was chosen. According to village gossip, some bribes were given out to some families in order to get them to support the construction.

A referendum was taken two years ago in the village based on whether or not they should accept the plans of the military or fight it. In this tiny village of 2,000, the vote was more than 90% against the military construction and in favor of fighting it. The Mayor admitted however, that not everyone voted in the referendum, and that maybe 25% of the village does support the construction, but did not show up to vote since they knew theirs was a lost cause.

Since that vote, the villagers have staged protests, rallies, meetings, and even conducted peace marches, where they spend a week walking around the entire island of Jeju. Dozens were arrested during their protests, including the Mayor himself, who went on a hunger strike when he was detained, and was released two days later.
Last November a peace conference was held on the island and delegates came from different parts of the world to express their solidarity with the people of Gangjeong. Around the mayor’s office different messages of hope, support and solidarity could be found, in many different languages. Each of the delegates were given sheets of paper on which we could write messages of our own. I wrote mine in Chamorro, mainly because I hadn't spoken it for several days and missed using it.

One avenue or hope is a lawsuit that the villagers filed in April against the Defense Minister, arguing that the base plan for Gangjeong is illegal, because the government did not study adequately the environmental impacts the construction would have. They are eager to hear the decision of the court sometime early next month.
Finally, a recent election on the island has brought some hope for the villagers, since the newly elected Governor, who will take office in July in more or less words, come out against placing the Navy base in Gangjeong. His explicit position is one of ambivalence and a wish to follow the will of the people of the village, and so he has made no firm promises or the other. The Mayor hopes that once he takes office, they will meet with him and give him their report and hopefully push him towards saving their village.

While for the villagers this is a big victory in the larger struggle to demilitarize Jeju and protect its status as an island of peace, the change in governor does not hold much hope. Although the new governor is against the Navy base being constructed in Gangjeong, he is not against the Navy base at all, but would most likely seek to relocate it somewhere else on the island in order to still have access to the potential money it would provide.

While in Gangjeong today, our Okinawa delegate Shinako was regularly asked by people about the situation in Okinawa. People there are regular flights from Japan to Jeju and the island gets a huge number of Japanese tourists, the people in Jeju were more in-tuned to what was going on there than most other communities we’ve visited. One of the things which Shinako was asked about was the recent resignation of Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s Prime Minister. Most everyone agrees that what brought Hatoyama’s short term as Prime Minister to an end was his inability to keep his campaign promise to remove the US military base in Futenma out of Okinawa. One thing which also played a role in forcing his resignation was that his party was pushed into power in the hopes of renegotiating and rebuilding US-Japan relations, and ridding it of that icky residue of Japan being a puppet of US empire.

People were concerned that ff the newly elected governor of Jeju ends up getting into a similar trap. That if he attempts to change the Navy base plan and seeks to relocate it somewhere else on the island, he might find it unworkable or impossible as well, and in the end put it right back in Gangjeong.

SK Solidarity Trip Quotes: Militarism vs. Eco-Tourism

"The [Jeju] government only thinks of economy in terms of military money. But they do not see the economic potential of this beautiful place. If Gangjeong is to be developed it should be through eco-tourism not militarization…

We, the people of this island should determine what our fate should be. The geography of this island puts us at a very important crossroads between nations. We should make the choice to develop this island because of its beauty through eco-tourism and not through militarization, which would only make us a target…If we all fight, who will win? No one. We would be gone in three seconds. To survive we must pursue dialogue and seek co-existence, not seek to force one another."

Kang Dong-Kyun
Mayor of Gangjeong Village
Jeju Island, South Korea
(via an interpreter)

SK Solidarity Trip Day 3: Militarization on an Island of Peace

Our delegation arrived in Jeju late last night and there wasn't much to see in the middle of the night riding on a bus to the hotel. Today, we have a packed schedule of meeting with some of the villagers of Gangjeong, their mayor, a tour of different military facilities on Jeju Island, and finally a presentation this evening to the villager on our work and what is happening in other communities affecting by similar problems of militarization.

For those who may not know much about Jeju or Gangjeong, I'm pasted an article below which puts the local struggle here on this island into a wider global strategic context very well. From the little I know so far about what the South Korean and US militarys have planned for this island and this tiny village, it is clear that every large grand plan depends upon small, local places. Often times the most valuable asset that these small, tiny place provide to those big grand plans, is that they are small, and outside of the vision of most people. Although Jeju is ideally located geographically in strategic terms, it is always important to remember that the value of small, islands or far away places is first, their invisibility, and second, the banality that emerges from that. The way that their smallness, their distance, the way they tend to be thought of as rural, backwards or country congeals to form this veneer of banality, where what happens there seems to matter less or not matter at all. This is one of this key equations for understanding force, power and how sovereignty is created, that distinction whereby a site for one becomes the key to their ability to create violence or enforce order, and for nearly all others, means very little and close to nothing.

One thing struck me, even as I was walking through the airport and reading the signs and ads (or at least what was in English). Jeju was christened last year as an "Island of Peace." Considering that planners in Seoul, Washington D.C. and Beijing see Jeju more as an "Island of War" that makes it all the more crucial what happens in Gangjeong Village, yet another one of those small, but critical details of empire.

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Jeju and a Naval Arms Race in Asia
Foreign Policy in Focus
By Kyoungeun Cha, June 18, 2010
FPIF contributor Kyoungeun Cha works for the Peace Network in South Asia.

Jeju Island Maritime security has been a top issue in Northeast Asia recently. The sinking of the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was a major agenda item at the annual summit that South Korean conducted with Japan and China on Jeju Island last month. Jeju Island is important for another reason. The South Korean government is planning
to build a naval base there.

Jeju Island is a special self-governing province located just southeast of South Korea. Its location in the center of Northeast Asia has given Jeju Island a political and geographic advantage. To the east, the island faces Tsushima Island and the Japanese prefecture of Janggi, with the South Sea and East China Sea in between. To the west, Jeju faces Shanghai across the East China Sea. The South China Sea lies south of the island, while the mainland of South Korea lies to the north.

Despite its strategic location, Jeju Island is a strange place for a military base. UNESCO has declared the island a World Heritage site, and it is a popular honeymoon destination. The former Roh Moo-hyun government also designated Jeju as a “peace island.” And yet the South Korean government has wanted to build a naval base on the island since 2002. Although there has been strong local resistance, the South Korean government plans to build the base in Geongjeong village, the third proposed site.

Jeju Island has long been a focus of strategic and security interests in Northeast sia. During World War II, the Japanese used the island to defend Japan from American forces. There were supply bases on the sland for 75,000 Japanese soldiers. The U.S. military later attempted to fortify the island after the fall of Japanese empire.

And today, Jeju Island is again the focus of attention. But this time, it is the latest escalation in a naval arms race in Northeast Asia.

Jeju Island’s strategic location has become even more important recently because of increased regional interest in maritime security. China and Japan have strengthened their marine military strategy. A 2009 Pentagon report estimated Chinese naval forces to possess 260 vessels, including 75 “principal combatants” — major warships — and more than 60 submarines. Also, the navy receives more than one-third of the overall official Chinese military budget of $78 billion. Because the Chinese government greatly underreports its military sending, however, China’s real military budget is more than that.

Meanwhile, Japan has similarly developed its naval military strategy. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) deploys perhaps the mostmodern and capable diesel-electric submarine force in the world. TheMSDF has 44,000 military personnel, 18 submarines, 9 frigates boats,and the second largest number of Aegis-equipped destroyers in the world, after the United States.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s administration has also joined this effort to increase naval power. According to the 2010 defensebudget, spending on naval vessels is increasing 23.7 percent over lastyear’s numbers. The naval base built on Jeju alone was earmarked for97.5 billion won ($7.8 million). “The investment in the naval ship sector is focusing on securing high-tech destroyers and submarinescontinually with an aim to improve capability of command of the seaaround the Korean Peninsula as well as building up capability toperform landing operation,” says Korea Institute for Defense Analyses(KIDA) scholar Peak Jae Ok.

The Cheonan incident, which involved the sinking of a South Koreanship in the Yellow Sea, has pushed the Lee administration to increasenaval spending in the 2011 military budget. South Korea has pledged toincrease maritime surveillance and national defense R&D to prepare forNorth Korean provocations. However, director of the Center forSecurity and Strategy at KIDA, Park Chang-Kwoun, says that “the SouthKorean government needs to balance military power and advisegovernment officials not to make hasty decisions.”

The U.S.-Korea alliance is closely related to this issue. The navalforces of the United States are the most powerful in the world. TheU.S. and South Korean government are expanding their militaryalliance, and if the naval base on Jeju Island is set up, the U.S.navy will use the base to monitor China’s naval power. Because of itsclose location to China, the naval base will primarily be a bulwarkagainst Chinese expansion rather than defend against North Koreathreat (for which the bases in Busan and Jinhae are better suited.)

The Jeju naval base is a likely bone of contention between the UnitedStates and China because of missile defense. Seoul plans to dockAegis-equipped destroyers at Jeju. These warships are the mainmilitary component of the U.S. missile defense system. According toXinhua Chinese newspaper, South Korea plans to build a new naval baseon the southern island of Jeju to expand the range of its navaloperations. U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin provides the Aegiscombat system to Seoul. “China regards missile defense as the 21stcentury’s greatest threat and is dissatisfied with U.S. missiledefense policy,” argues Cheong Wook-sik, director of Peace Network inSouth Korea. China believes that, in the event of a conflict overTaiwan, the United States will inevitably become involved because ofmissile defense.

South Korea, meanwhile, has indicated its interest in becoming moreintegrated into the U.S. missile defense system. In this way, bybecoming caught in a conflict between China and the United States, thenaval base could endanger Jeju Island and the national security ofSouth Korea. According to Lee Tae-ho, deputy secretary general ofPeople’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in South Korea, “TheChinese government has a response strategy that first attacks U.S.missile defense in the case of an emergency. That means that the Jejunaval base will be targeted in an armed conflict between the UnitedStates and China.” Even short of war, the base will create tensionamong China, Japan, and Korea, which could escalate into a naval armsrace in the Asia-Pacific region.

The naval base issue has also become a political hot potato in therecent elections on Jeju Island. Most candidates promised to dealdecisively with the conflict between the government and the islanders.But the people of Jeju are very mistrustful of the current Jejugovernor’s handling of the naval base plan. When the ministry of theNational Defense Department decided to build the naval base site inGeongjeong village, the procedure to secure the agreement of thevillagers was not transparent. The referendum that took place on May14, 2007 did not accurately reflect the real opinions of theresidents. Four months after the referendum, when the GeongjeongVillage People’s Council held a vote on the issue, 94 percent of thevillagers were against the naval base.

After the recent election on the island, the naval issue becameembroiled in more controversy. As soon as the election finished,Captain Lee Eun-Guk of the Jeju naval base business committeeannounced that the Navy plans to begin construction in the harbor andbay in September. On the other hand, Woo Geun-Min, the newly electedgovernor, expressed regret over pushing ahead with the naval base planso precipitously, saying that “Now it’s time to respect each other’sview.” Jeju islanders have appealed to him. But the new governor hasnot opposed the naval plan in principle. Rather, he has adopted anambivalent posture.

Last April, 450 Geongjeong villagers filed a suit against the defenseminister. The suit maintains that the ministry illegally approved thebase plan without carrying out an environmental impact statement. Thefirst court decision on the suit will be handed down on July 15.

In terms of the conflict between islanders and government, the case ofthe Jeju base is similar to the situation involving the U.S. militarybase in Okinawa. Former Japanese Prime Minster Yukio Hatoyama resignedafter approving the original plan of relocating the Futenma MarineCorps base within Okinawa prefecture. Although acknowledging Okinawan concerns, Hatoyama decided to keep Washington happy. Jeju’s newgovernor, like Hatoyama, is caught between local demands and national priorities.

The naval base issue affects the very existence of the islanders’life. The construction of a naval base not only could raise regionalmilitary tensions but also disrupt the ecosystem on the island. Thereare many cases of environmental destruction due to military bases inthe Asia-Pacific region, including Okinawa, Hawaii, and Guam. TheSouth Korean government has argued that tourism and U.S. militarybases can coexist. According to Kyle Kajihiro, a leader of theDMZ-Hawai'i / Aloha 'Aina network, “The Korean government’s argumentthat militarization has been good for Hawaii and would be good forJeju is dead wrong.” U.S. marine corps bases in Okinawa, Hawaii, andGuam were constructed in the postwar era before the rise of tourism on these islands. Jeju Island has already been discovered as a touristdestination, so the base will likely cause severe damage to the localeconomy.

In terms of security, economy, and environment, the Jeju naval base isa risky proposition. It’s not a good idea to ignore the dangers. SouthKorea’s naval power can’t catch up with China and Japan. Instead ofconstructing a naval base on Peace Island, South Korea should signalto China and Japan that a naval arms race is simply not worth it.

Sea-power competition also raises some troubling questions about thefuture of maritime stability in Asia. There are many territorial disputes in the region, and there have been numerous naval clashes. No one wants another Okinawa situation. However, it's possible topreserve maritime security through a nonmilitary cooperative systemlike the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). Those organizations have played amajor role in safeguarding maritime stability by encouraginggovernments to negotiate with each other. A military base on JejuIsland and a naval arms race in the region, on the other hand, willonly make a bad situation worse.

Friday, June 18, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 2: Strategic Flexibility

We took a train south from Seoul to reach the city of Pyeongtaek. At the train station we were met by Mr. Kang Sang-Won, the director of the Pyeongtaek Peace Center, who took us to his office. We spent some time in his office, learning the history of the problems that they have had with the always expanding military bases in the area, and later were taken on a tour around the area to see the bases themselves.

To give you a little background, in 2006 Pyeongtaek became a central struggle in the anti-base movement in South Korea. In the areas around Pyeongtaek, there are two US military bases, Osan which is an Air Force base and Camp Humphrey’s which is an Army base. In anticipating of moving US forces from Yonsang in Seoul down to Camp Humphreys, the South Korea government announced plans (three years earlier) to take huge pieces of land from farmers and small villages around the two bases.

In an effort to stop the taking of these lands, local farmers and peace activists from around Korea conducted a variety of acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking demolition equipment, going on hunger strikes, sitting in structures or chaining themselves to them in order to prevent them from being bulldozed, and holding vigils and rallies. In order to ensure that there were no problems in the condemnation of the properties and the eviction of the villagers there, the South Korean government sent in more than 10,000 military soldiers and riot police. They also put up fences and razor wire and dug trenches around the fields of farmers to keep them from returning to their land. Given that the opposition was small groups of activists and farmers, this response was obviously overkill.

But there were interesting geopolitical needs at stake which made it critical for the South Korean government that this land be taken and made available to the US military. Depending on who you ask, it has either been since the 1960’s or the 1990’s that the United States has wanted to move towards providing a more supportive role in the defense of South Korea. Since World War II, the US military presence in South Korea, has been closely intertwined with the South Korean government and military, a fact best exemplified by Yonsang Base in Seoul, where you can find the Combined Forces Command, which is commanded by a four-star American General, with a South Korean four-star general as the deputy commander. You can also see it represented in the way US forces can be found in the DMZ or demilitarized zone on the North and South Korean border.

For the US, the key to disentangling this web of militarization, is to dissolve the Combined Forces Command, get the headquarters of the US military South Korea out of Seoul and Yonsang and also pull back troops from the DMZ. The expanding of Camp Humphreys is one piece which makes that possible, as it is set to be the new home of US Forces in South Korea. Another key is to move those troops closer to the border further away, and readjust the military posture of the forces on the peninsula, from a more conventional one, to a more advanced, long-range one. That is the reason why Osan base is also being expanded, and a new runway built. One of the new additions to Osan Base are PAC-3 missiles, which are a big part of the US military’s strategy "defensive plan" for boxing in China. As fellow solidarity delegate Bruce Gagnon pointed out, the US also has plans to put these PAC-3 missiles in Taiwan.

According to Mr. Kang Sang-Won, whenever the residents of Pyeongtaek question their government as to why, when the US military has to take more land, when it already has so much in the area, they are told that this is about defending South Korea from North Korea, and about giving the United States military “strategic flexibility.”

For those who pay attention to what military rhetoric, this is one of the most important things a military commander wants. In Guam, we are very familiar with this concept since, whenever any random DOD or Federal Official comes through the island to talk about the military buildup there, they in one way or another note that Guam offers the US military “strategic flexibility.” This is usually described as something which gives the US military the extra boost it needs first thing in the morning to respond to a threat or an emergency crisis in the near region. Strategic flexibility is the ability to react quickly, efficiently with minimal interference.
Guam offers strategic flexibility because it has no host government and no status of forces agreement which has to be informed about operations or might have any say in what the military can or cannot do. The military sees that by moving its headquarters, obtaining more territory and dissolving the Combined Forces Command, they would be more free to act and respond. Another aspect of America’s flexibility in South Korea, is that by moving them away from North Korea and south of Seoul, they are not only out of range of most of North Korea’s weapons, but also more free to act and intervene in other places in the Asia Pacific region.

When Mr. Kang Sang-Won took us around the bases in question, it was clear that while the US military may claim to be reducing forces or simply realigning forces, around Camp Humphreys, from the large construction that we saw, it was clear that they are absolutely expanding.

SK Solidarity Trip Day 2: Art in Daechuri

While at the Pyeongtaek Peace Center, I had the chance to meet with Yongdong Yang, an artist and one of the main photographers who captured the resistance of the people of Daechuri village, which was almost completely demolished in order to make way for the expansion of Camp Humphreys. He published a book a few years ago chronicling the fight of the villagers, and I was lucky enough to purchase a copy while I was at the Center.

Unfortunately the book is entirely in Korean and the only thing I can read in it are the dates on which the photos were taken. Nonetheless, many of the pictures are very powerful and a few very brutal. We see in some the simple but direct resistance of people who are fighting for their land, fighting to not lose the land or homes some held in their families for generations, and be forced to live in high-rise apartments like the majority of South Koreans today. But in other images we see the overcompensation of the state, the vast army of riot police that it sent into that tiny village to ensure that no one stood in the way of destroying Daechuri and handing thousands of acres of fertile farmland over to the US military. As the government destroyed more homes and structures, violence eventually did erupt. The book captures some of those photographs.

When I was doing some research online about the 2006 battle in Pyeongtaek, many articles portrayed the protestors as troublemakers who attacked the helpless thousands riot police who had come to destroy Daechuri village. Articles described the poor police, in their full body armor, shields, batons, helmets and other array of hi-tech crowd control weapons, being helplessly pummeled by farmers with their sticks and bamboo poles.

One final thing that I found very interesting about this book is how much of a role public art and public community rituals played in the resistance to this base. In the book there are countless images of different paintings, sculptures, icons which people created to express their disapproval for the displacement of the villagers and the expansion of the US military base. I also came across this vide on Youtube the other day, which was filmed after much of the protests had ended and the conflict was over, but was meant to collect as much of the art that the struggle had created.

Here is a message which accompanied the video short, from one of the artists who made it, Bum Lee:

“I visited Daechuri on Saturday March 3. Behind the perimeter of fences guarded by police, many of the homes had been demolished and the unharvested fields were trenched off with barbed wire. But there was art everywhere amidst the ruin – murals, sculptures, junk art, and a gallery filled with paintings. The villagers held their nightly candlelight vigil in a hall surrounded by painted portraits, and in the evening they sang songs around a bonfire.

This video is a tribute to the art of Daechuri.”




Right now I’m in Gaengjong Village in Jeju Island, tomorrow morning we’ll be touring around the village and the island learning more about their struggle against the building of a Navy base in their small village by the sea. I’m wondering what kind of art is being created there to help sustain their struggle, as well as translate it to a wider audience.

Before going, I don’t have a scanner here in Korea but I did want to share on my blog some pictures from the resistance book I bought. I just took these photos with my not-so-great-digital camera and so my apologies to Mr. Yongdong Yang for misrepresenting his work. Later when I get back to Guam I will probably scan some more and post them.




SK Solidarity Trip Day 2: K-Pop and Computer Games

I asked a few people before I left Guam what, if anything, they would want me to try and get for them while I was in South Korea. Most people, thankfully said nothing, since I knew I wouldn't have alot of time for commercial exploring or shopping on this trip.

My brother Jeremy (Kuri), is helping my stubstitues with the AV equipment for my classes while I'm gone and so when he said that he didn't want anything from South Korea, I pushed him further to come up with something I could get for him, to pay him back for helping me out. Put i tiningo'-hu put i che'l-hu, ya hafa ya-na, siempre guaha minalago-na.

Last year in one of my Guam History classes a friend of my brothers outed him as a closet K-Pop fan. Apparently a few weeks before, a K-Pop group had been on island for a vacation, and so when Kuri and his friends heard about this and found out what hotel they were staying at, they rushed down their to try and meet them. As they wandered around the hotel, like all true-hardcore-gof kinene' na- fans, they discussed how they were going to be cool as cucumbers and smooth as silk when they eventually found the group. How they were not going to melt down, fall to pieces, or implode from coming too close with the object of their desire.


Eventually they did find members of the group, and while most of them remained in blissful shock, one of Kuri's friends went to screaming, OMG-OMG-OMG-OMG, K-Popmania pieces, and naturally making them all look like crazed, early 20-something boyfans. Quick awkward hellos were exchanged and just as quick-relieved-good-byes were exchanged soon after.

I had known that Kuri had taken a class at UOG about Korean classical music, and knew he was somewhat interested in that, but never knew that his affinity for K-things went beyond that. When I mentioned this embarassing story to him, he admited it was true and mentioned a couple of more Korean things he enjoys watching or following, such as Korean movies, dramas and Starcraft.


One of the things which is high up on my list of things to do when I have more time, is to watch a film that Kuri recommended and gave to me on my flashdrive, Sunflower. Kuri regularly gives me recommendations like this, but for some reason Sunflower is the only one whose story appealed to me.

So when I pushed Kuri to tell me something he'd want from South Korea, he said two possible things. The first was to get him a poster of the K-Pop Girls group T-Ara. I know absolutely nothing about K-Pop other than Uchan, or as he is known to everyone else except me and Sumahi, B-Rain. Despite not being able to speak, read or understand Korea I've decided that I will do my best to try and find Kuri this poster, or at least a CD of T-Ara. I am hoping and praying that they do actually exist and that Kuri is not simply making this up so I can run around Seoul trying to find a girl group which does not exist.


The other request dealt with the PC game Starcraft. Almost everyday Kuri can be seen watching videos of Starcraft matches from South Korea. Starcraft is a pretty old game, but is still incredibly popular, especially in South Korea. An entire pro-gaming industry has grown around it, where players can make quite a bit of money for winning tournaments. I enjoy playing video games, but watching some of these Starcraft matches with pro-players makes me feel like I'm insane. With the fast clicking and moving, the constant scuttling of small vehicles or humanoid forms on the screen and then the Korean commentary, which results in frenetic yelling every once in a while for reasons that I'm not sure of. Kuri told me that if I were to go to a live match while I'm in Seoul and make a sign signifying that I'm a foreigner and that I love Starcraft, they would definitely put a camera on me at sometime during the match.


I doubt I'll have time during my stay in South Korea to go to a match, especially since I have no idea where they play. Since I've been in South Korea I keep asking people I meet if they know where the matches are, or if they even play Starcraft. Most people I've met know about the game but I haven't found a single person who admits to playing it.


I asked one South Korean guy who was educated in the US (and could speak English so I didn't need an interpreter) if Starcraft really was that big in this country. He said, yeah it is really huge. I asked him then, do you play? He said, no, no way. I then asked, well, if it's so big, why haven't a met a single person so far who plays it or knows much about it? His reply was that, people who love Starcraft probably don't go outside very much.

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.

*************************

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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