Dispatches from Jeju-#2, 6/12/12

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.
I hate my minbak. There are no towels. There is no desk. The only chair in my room is the toilet. How am I supposed to get any writing done? After a lumbar-challenging morning of hunching over my laptop on the floor, I finally broke down and decided to investigate the price of lodging at the fancy hilltop hotel on the other side of the river. I had promised a few people I would attend mass that morning, held al fresco at the gates to the navy-base construction site. But that would have to wait. I had to get my workspace in order. Besides, there’s mass every morning. And every afternoon. I’ll just go to the four o’clock service instead. In any case, I would be passing by on my way. I could already hear the electrified strains of a soprano’s hymn wafting through the air as worship got underway, just down the road.  Apparently, a PA system amplifies the service throughout the village. It turned out there were actually two sets of gates to the base construction site, one across the street from a pretty tangerine orchard and a larger one further down, near the river mouth. It was a beautiful day to worship. Church should be outside more often. At the first gathering, a Jesuit priest in elegant vestments conducted service from a card-table pulpit for a handful of worshippers perched on plastic stools. At the main gate, four priests and five others meditated cross-legged on the ground. Some stood and held anti-base signs. I nodded to the people I recognized from karaoke the night before. Meanwhile, watchful police guards eyed us humorlessly. One snapped several photos of me through a weighty lens. Creepy shit. The path up to the hotel was just beyond an old stone bridge, but before I got there, I came upon a parking lot overloaded with ten brand-new police buses, each as enormous and shiny as a country-western star’s touring coach. Over a hundred very young uniformed men and women stood around chatting. Even the girls looked like mini-robocops. Some joked and laughed on the grass, enjoying early summer. You would think you were at a college fair, if it weren’t for their shields and combat gear. Once I reached the glitzy hotel, a banner out front read, “Welcome International Pig Veterinary Conference!” At the front desk, they told me they were full up for another week. But even if there had been a vacancy, the rooms were 180,000 won apiece – too rich for my blood. So I headed back down the hill, after sniffing the offerings at the buffet in the hotel restaurant. The park was emptied of young people by the time I got there. Instead, they were now grimly lined up in formation across the span of the bridge. There must have been 200 of them. They braced their Lucite shields in front of their bodies, transformed from the jovial kids they had been just moments earlier. Every 20 or so held a black pole mounted with a video camera. A command was yelled; the soldiers march-jogged toward the people meditating on the ground. A gamine woman quickly crossed the street to join her fellow protestors. Half the cops flowed liquidly past the civilians and gathered in an odd swarm with their backs to them. It was strange, that they should all stand tightly together, facing nothing but the construction fence. The other half remained on the bridge, in formation, facing the priests. Then on no perceptible cue, the lot of them turned toward the resistors and engulfed them, lifting their passive bodies like ocean currents, about 20 police to one citizen. One man wasn’t so passive; he kicked violently at the cops hauling him off. The camera booms listed toward him, capturing the same moments from a multitude of angles. The gamine woman broke away from two clench-jawed female cops, pacing quickly out of the thoroughfare as she tossed her head petulantly and adjusted her blouse. The shock-and-awe impact of so many police for just eight or ten citizens makes the body tremble. It makes the eyes swell with tears. It makes the intestines quiver. I thought to myself later– so this is what honest-to-god terror feels like. Isn’t South Korea supposed to be the “good” half of Korea – the democratic half?? And then, the final indignity: the maw opened and a cavalcade of enormous cement-mixer trucks emerged. The sound of metal scraping metal and industrial rumbling filled the air. Cops restrained the protestors so that the trucks, one after another, could leave. A man quickly dove under the front tires of the fourth truck that lurched and screeched to avoid killing him. Thirty cops pounced to remove him as he squirmed and hotly cursed. They didn’t care that 94% of this village voted against the base. Democracy be damned. They’re just doing their jobs. I was able to glance inside the construction site. House-sized concrete tetrapods, resembling the jacks I used to play with as a girl, carpeted the coastline. The sacred gureombi rock was nowhere to be seen. Other concrete forms were stacked, waiting to be dropped on the reef. Trucks and cranes littered the landcape. It looked like the Port of Oakland after an earthquake.  And to think that only a few months ago, people could drink the fresh water from springs on this coastline, and women were still free-diving for abalone and sea urchins. How precious was that – in these toxic times we inhabit! But the South Korean and U.S. governments have destroyed a village’s food and water resources forever. I am witnessing a war. Or a holocaust. A woman’s voice ranted stridently. I turned to see it was Wild Grass (everyone here goes by an alias), one of the most flamboyant of the protestors. I first saw her last night, singing a K-pop tune, and looking like a teenager as she whipped her long hair around her microphone. But now, in the starkness of this moment, I saw she wasn’t so young. She upbraided an infrastructure worker with the righteousness of a woman made wise with age. The worker avoided eye contact no matter how much she got in his face. Even though she was chiding him in Korean, I could tell what she was saying. She was telling him it was a sin to support the destruction of their village. “Peace Be To Gangjeong!” was defiantly declared over the Catholics’ loudspeaker. “Love to Gureombi!” I couldn’t take the intensity anymore. I headed back to the center of town. But I didn’t want to go back to my minbak. I needed calm companionship. I headed for the resistance-movement headquarters, called the Peace Center, a few doors from the minbak. It was empty, except for Yune, a young woman who speaks English. “I’m in shock,” I told her, out of breath. She looked at me wide-eyed and asked me why. “It’s so horrible, so violent.” “This is everyday,” she answered. “Twice a day.” I tried to grok it all. I couldn’t. How could these people live like this and maintain their sanity? They have been protesting non-stop, 24-7, for five years. Then Yune told me that the government announced that by the end of June, martial law in Gangjeong will be in effect. Will be in effect? Then what was that, I wondered?  “But we won’t let it happen,” she assured me. As for the minbak, I am learning to dry myself with a pair of stretch pants after my sponge bath, and I’ll just learn to operate my laptop on the floor.

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