Members of the U.S. Veterans For Peace (VFP) participated in the Gangjeong Grand March for Life and Peace. From August 1 to August 6, Korean and international peace activists came together to march across Jeju to oppose the island’s new naval base as well as continued militarization of Jeju Island and South Korea.
For nearly 10 years since 2007, people of Jeju Island and peace activists from all across South Korea struggled to stop the South Korean government from constructing a naval base in the island’s small village of Gangjeong. The government imposed its decision to build the base without any consideration for the villagers and their opposition to the base construction.
While the South Korean government claims the base will be used exclusively for domestic military operations, critics have long suspected that it will host U.S. military weapons and become a key strategic piece in the U.S.’ plan to contain China. The government has also ignored concerns about the damage the base would cause to the natural environment and the livelihood of the fisherfolk and tangerine farmers in the seashore community of Gangjeong.
The movement to oppose the naval base construction led by the villagers of Gangjeong, have endured various forms of state repression from use of excessive force and unlawful arrests by riot police to fines that have imposed heavy financial burdens on the people of Gangjeong.
As of February 2016, the naval base is complete despite nine years of hard-fought struggle by Gangjeong villagers and peace activists from around the world. The government now seeks compensation from villagers for alleged damages incurred by their protests. In August of 2016, during the 5th annual Gangjeong Grand March for Life and Peace, Gangjeong villagers with the support of South Korean and international peace activists demanded the South Korean government withdraw its claim for compensation from those who participated in the protests against the naval base construction.
Bruce Gagnon of VFP wrote reflections while marching for peace on Jeju Island. Below are excerpts, originally posted on his blog Organizing Notes.
(Highlights from 2016 Gangjeong Grand March for Life and Peace; Video footage provided by Will Griffin of VFP; Edited by ZoominKorea)
We gathered at the front gate of the new naval base on Jeju Island on the morning of August 1 just after 8:00 am in order to get registered for the six-day peace walk around Jeju Island, South Korea. Many in the crowd walked down an entry road to the main gate that of course was blocked off with higher than normal security standing guard while military music blasted out for all to hear.
It was sad to see the new base housing for military personnel and their families and to get a glimpse of the warship docks. I was imagining that US Navy destroyers, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers will be ported there very soon. Gangjeong village has a population of 2,000 people and there are expected to be anywhere from 3,000-7,000 navy personnel based here at some point. And then figure in the many hundreds of sailors on visiting warships. This once quiet fishing and farming community will be torn asunder even more than it already has been.
Gangjeong villagers though have proven to be determined and resilient during this 10-year non-violent struggle to oppose the Navy base. Before we began walking this morning, a news conference was held right in front of the main gate and the village Mayor Cho Kyung Cheol said, “People in the village have been treated like dogs and pigs” by the Navy and the government. He spoke of even more lawsuits being filed by the government and Samsung (the lead base construction contractor) seeking $3 million in “damages” against the village and 116 persons in the village (and their supporters) because they allegedly impeded the construction process. One activist called the fines “a new form of oppression” against the village.
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[On the third day of the Grand March for Life and Peace] we walked about 13 miles in the hot heat (and sometimes rain). We hit the area called Seongsan by the end of the day that is presently mired in its own fight against the government.
Without consulting the residents of Seongsan, or any other villages in the area, the South Korean government announced their intention to build a second airport on Jeju Island. The current airport is in Jeju City, which is on the northern part of the island while Seongsan is on the southern side of the egg-shaped island.
[At] night during the after-dinner nightly walk program, we heard from the local committee leaders opposing the airport plan. It appears that more than 75% of the villagers in Seongsan would lose their homes and four other nearby villages would also be severely impacted. The chairman of the opposition committee told us that they believe the airport is related to the naval base in Gangjeong village. It seems that the Pentagon does not want to port their expensive destroyers, nuclear subs, and aircraft carriers in Gangjeong village without ‘close air support,’ thus the need for an airfield nearby. But the government knows that another US military base would create big political problems so they are saying the airport would only be for civilian use. By now the people here understand that the US and South Korean governments lie about virtually everything.
(It must be remembered that the announced Obama-Hillary Clinton ‘pivot’ of 60% of US forces into the Asia-Pacific means that more airfields, ports-of-call, and barracks are needed for military operations.)
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The Grand March for Life and Peace concluded Saturday night (August 6) with a rousing rally in Jeju City along the sea wall (that reminds one of the Malecón in Havana).
As our east team met the west team in the center of the city, each side carried one of two large banners depicting wooden totems that now stand in front of the peace center in Gangjeong village. The two banners were brought into the busy traffic clogged intersection and symbolically joined. From there the two merged teams walked the last few miles to the rally site. The totem banners were erected onto the large stage and as dark came, and the stage lights hit the banners, the beautiful colors came alive in a brilliant display. I was very moved to stand on that stage and deliver the message representing the international guests.
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I must say thank you to all our new friends and co-walkers for this incredible experience. Despite the fun and the excitement of the walk what must come first is the reminder that the people in South Korea are witnessing their democracy being dismantled each day by the right-wing Park government. They are seeing their country, already long a US military colony, become even more so as Washington rushes to prepare for war with China and Russia.
People here, like in Okinawa and Guam, know they are a prime target in a conflict because of the US bases on their islands. They are doing all they can NOW while they still can. They wonder why people in the US and in Europe are largely so silent and inactive when it comes to the massive expansion of the US-NATO war machine into the Asia-Pacific (including new NATO partnership agreements with South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand).
In my short talk on the last night, I told the hundreds who were assembled at the final rally the story of our protest in Bath, Maine last June when 12 of us (Zumwalt 12) were arrested at the Bath Iron Works shipyard for blocking the road and gate into the ‘christening’ ceremony for a new warship. I said that warship was likely to visit Gangjeong village at some point. I told the people that they inspired us in Maine to act – in fact five of the 12 of us who were arrested have been to Gangjeong village over the past few years. I said we’d continue to support them into the future.
The only way we can prevent WWIII is to become bolder during this dangerous time of military expansion and the drowning of democracy. The people of Korea who have come to Jeju Island in large numbers (union members, human rights activists, peaceniks, parents of the Sewol ferry students killed in that terrible accident, Korea Green Party members, priests & nuns, environmentalists, and community leaders) are showing that it is possible to build effective coalitions in order to protect democracy, peace and our Mother Earth. We all have much to learn from the biggest little village on the planet called Gangjeong.
By Bruce Gagnon
Bruce Gagnon is a member of Veterans for Peace and the Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He also maintains his own blog called Organizing Notes and contributes as a writer for ZoominKorea.
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