Dispatches from Jeju-#1, 6/10/12

Koohan Paik is reporting this month from Jeju, South Korea, where an horrendous military base construction—for the eventual use of the U.S. missile-carrying fleets, aimed at China—is underway. The base development is destroying a magnificent coral reef, very rare wildlife species, and a wonderful traditional community of farmers and oyster-fishers. The U.S. already has more than 400 bases in the Pacific.
Below are observations after my first day in Gangjeong Village, the still wonderful fishing and farming town where an enormous Navy base is being built to house Aegis-missile-equipped destroyer warships.

Gangjeong is a much prettier village than what I thought it would be, even after scrutinzing many photos on the internet and Facebook. But I was shocked when I took a walk down the hill to visit the sea, and saw the military construction site. The reality hit me like a kick in the stomach. It is dreadful and it must be stopped. From my experience today, it appears as if all the gureombi-rock coastline has been fenced off, not with the normal kind of construction dust fence, but very serious blockades with barbed wire and guards. Needless to say, I never made it to the sea. I can only try to imagine how gorgeous it must have looked to stroll down the hill from the village with the ocean before you. Now all the ocean view has been replaced by that barbed wire fencing. It is sickening and depressing.

One thing that surprised me–after having heard so much about the incomparable, pristine beauty of Jeju Island from both anti-base and pro-development people–is how much of the island is already destroyed by loads of development. Crowded superhighways criss-cross the island. Hourly superferries ply the waters, arriving from all over the mainland. There are as many flights between Seoul and Jeju as there are between San Francisco and L.A.

On my way from the ferry terminal to Gangjeong, the bus made the rounds at Joongmoon tourist area, which is a conglomerate of Vegas-style theme mega-hotels separated by vestiges of forest. The most “tasteful” one is the Hyatt (an excellent facsimile of an Italian villa), as opposed to the Lotte, which looks like a Doubletree Homewood Suites on steroids. Cross the L.A-style parking lots of these hotels and you hit the sorts of attractions you might find at Fisherman’s Wharf: a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, a love and sex museum, an oversized version of a Zanzibar building with a huge polyurethane elephant and other African animals out front, and a Starbucks that looks more like a Disneyland ride than a coffeehouse. Tacky and garrish, it’s like Kim Jong-il was Joongmoon’s director of city planning.

By contrast, Gangjeong is so quaint and authentic, a ten-minute drive away. Real farmers and fishermen live on these picturesque paths lined on each side with lava-rock walls. Beauty and community are everywhere, as is the impressive presence of the protestor community, with anti-base banners and flags festooning all neighborhoods. Tangerines, aloe, apricots and figs grow along the streets and pathways.

Indeed, it is the spirit of the villagers that takes your breath away. This is Mecca for anti-military activists. In the center of town is a visitors’ center. There is a lounge and information there for tourists about Gangjeong, all with a decidedly anti-base stance, with schedules available for all the daily anti-base events. Every day at 11:00 and 3:00 a mass is held outside the gates to the construction site. Lunch and dinner are served for free every day to activists at a spacious temporary building that is surrounded by fields of strawberries. At eight every evening is a candlelight vigil.

I just returned from the candlelight vigil — wow! That was the first candlelight vigil I’ve ever been to with karaoke. A karaoke candlelight vigil. The mayor was decked out in the traditional silk Jeju attire and shades as he rocked out at the mike, telling everyone to stand up and dance, which we all did, of course, since the mayor went to jail for five months to defend his village. Everyone here is so passionate and smart and committed. And entertaining. And human. I met the head cook, the head of “field activities,” the head of the media team, the head of the kayak team, the head of the “international team,” and the head of the explosives team (they block trucks; not detonate dynamite). I met a famous actor from a television series who now lives here and fights in the struggle. I met an arrogant journalist from D.C. who kept interrupting everybody and was here on a grant to study and publish about the militarization of Jeju and Okinawa, and who didn’t even know about the intimate connection between Okinawa and the Guam buildup, or much of anything else about Asia-Pacific militarization. I met the famous Father Moon, known nationally here for all his antics in protest of Pyongtaek military base, but not as famous as his brother, who is in all the history books for crossing the DMZ in protest of the division and serving time for five years for doing so. Every night, about fifty people from near and far, come to sing and dance after a day of anti-base protests.

If this was the “candlelight vigil,” I have yet to discover what the catholic mass tomorrow morning will be like. Will keep you posted…

Koohan

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