By Reece Chenault
“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce, it is always about people.” – Cesar Chavez
On a seven-day trip to learn about and build relationships with the South Korean labor movement in discussion centered around climate, workers’ rights and the struggle against rising imperialism that crossed May Day and Children’s Day, our delegation had many memorable experiences. US Labor Against the War’s #soccerdiplomacy crew saw and met people they’d never imagined they’d be connected to and walked away profoundly changed. But one thing that stood out for many of them was a trip to Seongju village in support of their struggle against the THAAD missile system for reasons that I’m still chewing on today.
When we visited, we definitely had a great time. There’s video of us chanting and singing along but also contributing songs from our own American tradition. Folks on the trip got to meet people from the village and share stories. But the real hit, the thing that folks still talk about, was experiencing the fresh produce – the strawberries especially. A tray of beautiful ripe berries was passed between the group and I still get a big smile on my face from the looks of pleasure on their faces as they took a bite. Two delegates (April and Rebecca, I think) were looking at each other and the tray, wide-eyed, while April made the comment:
“Up until now, I think it is a very real possibility that I have never had a strawberry before.”
April was laughing as she said this, of course, but I held onto that comment and you should too. We’ll return to it a bit later.
The fight against THAAD (terminal high altitude area defense) in Seongju has been widely covered by a variety of news sources over the years, so I don’t feel the need to go too far into details but I think it is important to review the basics. The villagers of Seongju are deeply opposed to the placement of a high-altitude missile system and their reasons are just. The system, in addition to being a polluter with unknown side effects, isn’t really doing much to protect anyone despite being touted as protection against nuclear missile strikes. In fact, its presence seems to have a negative effect on tensions. In an article about Seongju’s fight to remove THAAD, the mayor of the village said:
“We are worried that we are now a North Korean target,” said Seongju’s mayor, Lee Seok-joo. “But there is also a strong element of political theatre in all of this. To get the votes they need, the main candidates in the presidential election are pandering to conservative voters – and that means not outwardly opposing THAAD.
When I first visited South Korea a year ago, I made a promise to the villagers of Seongju as well as myself that I would come back with more members of the labor movement so that they could see for themselves the strange yet familiar position that residents of the village find themselves in. Political figures on multiple levels are playing with the lives and livelihoods of these residents, a fact that likely resonated with many of the people in our delegation. Be it the very real threat militarized police pose to the lives of Black folks while politicians play to their bases, or the struggle of immigrants to be seen as more than fuel for the economic machine, or the crude and bitter war conservative forces have decided to wage on women… the folks who decided to suspend their lives to fly 14+ hours to be here in this moment knew exactly what this kind of manipulation felt like.
So when we arrived in Soseong-ri Town Hall, the display of solidarity that was decided upon by the delegation was different than what would normally be expected from a group of trade unionists from the United States. The songs that they sang and the way that they sang them came from that place of strength despite opposition and political duplicity. Both adapted from the US Civil Rights tradition, their words were meant to be love notes to comrades they’d never met and the passion was clear. If you watch the video (begin at 4:30), the chant “I Believe That We Will Win” was done with hothouse fervor that moved the crowd into participation despite a clear language barrier. During “Whose Side Are You On?” there was even an addition to two Korean freedom fighters, recognizing that struggles were truly linked.
This was a different kind of solidarity that was being formed, as many of our delegates would later identify. Previous to our journey, we’d had complex discussions about the nature of relationships between the US labor movement and South Korea. It’s not that we couldn’t have a good relationship full of learning and support… it’s that without an acknowledgement of the effect our expanding military-industrial complex has on the rest of the world, it’s hard for other countries to truly take us seriously as movements for justice. After all, THAAD didn’t fall from the sky mysteriously. It is a weapon system (one of many) that we sold to their country, machined and assembled right in the USA by workers that could have been members of a union. A challenge to this industrial complex, then, is more than just fighting the good fight. It’s a step toward being a labor movement that feels complete and ready to heal the wounds it has been a part of inflicting as an active ally of American capitalism. That is real solidarity, built not just of interlocking promises to support one another in struggle but also of chances to see atonement as opportunity for growth.
So when it was all over and all the pictures had been taken, seeing the villagers offer part of their harvest to their new comrades seemed so much more than a friendly gesture. Those strawberries symbolized a new chance to look at something that seemed so familiar to our movement – the notion of international solidarity – and maybe see it with new eyes. April was right on so many different levels, it would appear. The looks on faces, Korean and American, as they enjoyed the proud work of the farmers in that small village said so much. The flavor of movements that recognized the importance of confronting militarism was sweet and delicious to all those present, and just like the strawberries of Soseong-ri, left those new to its flavor wanting more opportunities to experience it. Our delegates, still fresh from flights home, were quick to message me after the trip was over. Their messages, almost to a person?
“What’s next? When can we go back?”
It seems the harvest, in more ways than one, was successful.
Reece Chenault is National Coordinator for US Labor Against the War, an anti-war organization dedicated to changing the labor movement’s foreign policy from within. Chenault has spent almost twelve years as a union and community organizer.