The power of the people

Day 13 in Gangjeong Village

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“The people united will never be defeated.” This universal chant is heard at rallies all over the world. On Wednesday, this statement was solidified as over 100 college students and farmers from mainland Korea joined the daily mass and songs in front of the construction gate. In addition to the several priests and nuns that typically block the gate during each mass, huge crowds of students and farmers joined that morning. Amazingly, police officers in several coach buses stayed out of sight for over an hour while several trucks, cars, and vans were blocked from coming in and out of the construction site. The usual struggle between police and anti-base activists was avoided that day thanks to the largest turnout Gangjeong Village has seen in quite a while.

Typically, about 50 officers show up to move the members of the Catholic Church from blocking the gate. As it takes abut five officers to move each activist and about 10 officers to then form a barrier to prevent one from moving again, the police had no means to control the unexpected crowd on Wednesday. This sudden support and the surprising reaction (or unresponsiveness) by police was immensely refreshing. Many expressed a desire to have such support more often to fortify the anti-base campaign. Regardless, it seems that strength truly depends on numbers, and when the oppressed can publicly outnumber the oppressors, perhaps we can then regain justice and maintain peace.

To continue to show the widespread, collective support against the naval base construction, an estimated 500 people from Jeju, the mainland Korea as well as those from other nations (Taiwan, America, etc.) will join the march around the island. Those marching will take off at 9:00AM on Monday, and two teams will take off towards either the East or the West to meet at Jeju City on Saturday, August 3 for the Peace concert. The opening ceremony tonight was full of energy as participants from near and far with sleeping bags to prepare for the week ahead. Much of the community in Jeju will join along the way, and many will be there for the full six days of the march.

A peace festival will be held in Gangjeong Village on Sunday, August 4 as hundreds will hold hands to form a human chain around the construction site at 12 noon. International messages of solidarity from those unable to join physically will be displayed. The human chain will signify a demand pf peace for Jeju and Gangjeong as well as justice and freedom for the four activists currently in prison. Click here for more information on the human chain. For more information on the weeklong march, click here. To send an international message of solidarity, e-mail  gangjeongintl@gmail.com (with a photo or a message 100 words or less).

The photos below include pictures from the past week =)

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There’s no place like Gangjeong

Past the airport and resorts of Jeju Island, a small village with a population of no more than 2000 sits along the coast. As you walk through Gangjeong Village on a Sunday afternoon, the distinct culture of this town is tangible. You can hear calm music as the owner of the Peace Library and Cafe plays the accordion and greets the children and families passing by.

On Tuesday evening, the village held a concert at the Peace Center, where leaders of the Buddhist Temple and Christian and Catholic Churches joined community members and activists for an interfaith concert. Monks, priests, and village residents sang and played music to promote peace. Anti-base families and volunteers clapped to songs written against the illegal construction of the naval base in Gangjeong Village.

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The love of music runs deep; everyday, activists sing and dance with pride and dedication in their struggle to save their village from militarization. Even after daily clashes with police, dozens come to join this cheerful end to a long, hot morning in front of both gates of the construction site. Those in passing tour buses look out of their windows in curiosity and residents driving by smile and wave as we dance through the road.

Speakers often ring throughout the village from the mayor’s office to announce anti-base events and news. The fresh air of the countryside, the countless greenhouses full of tangerine trees, and farms growing tomatoes, garlic, and white lily, offer residents and visitors alike a serene atmosphere. Few cars travel through the roads as everything in the village is in walking distance – many residents ride bicycles or mopeds.

And, in a society where safe neighborhoods is believed to be a lost concept, Gangjeong Village attempts to prove us wrong. On many occasions, I have left my bicycle unlocked and unattended next to open roads, and every time,  I wake up to it in the same place, untouched. Coming from a city where bike theft is an organized crime and where people are expected to steal, this village was a bit of a culture shock (the best kind, of course). Late in the evening, the air is fresh and the roads are quiet, and you can walk safely in the middle of the main road.

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Arts & crafts are natural hobbies across the village. Each day, activists carve wood pieces with messages of peace as they occupy the gate of the naval base construction area. Public buildings and gates of home have been painted with images of colorful trees and flowers. Since the controversial base began construction, the streets have been lined with hundreds of banners and messages of love and demands for justice for the village.

Gangjeong Village is truly a special place. With Jeju Island’s tragic history of colonization, war, and massacre in the 40’s and 50’s, its proclamation as the Peace Island is held close to the hearts of residents. The naval base construction is truly a betrayal of the people and an ignorance to the devastating past of the island. Though Jeju has recovered over the decades and the construction continues on after seven years, the pain is fresh in the hearts of villagers. Tears fall everyday in the struggle, and activists have no intention to leave this fight behind.

A Day in the Life of a Peace Activist

Day 6 in Gangjeong Village

Until recently, physical clashes with the police and coast guard were the norm, and activists were arrested every day and many sustained serious injuries from the aggressive reaction of officers. In passionate solidarity against the base, activists would lay underneath or climbed on top of cars and trucks and hold on as multiple police officers dragged them out. One student climbed a construction crane and delayed work for a week. You can see the forcefulness and the hostility of the police here:

When protesters went out to sea and climbed the tall ships near the construction site, they struggled as the crewmen attempted to push them off. During a religious ceremony in April 2012, a coast guard officer chased an activist on the large tetrapods (see picture below) by the water.

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As another officer came and both were being aggressive, activists and Father Moon came on the tetrapods and urged them to be careful. One officer struggled with Father Moon, an elderly man, leading him to fall 5 meters through several large concrete tetrapods. He was lucky to survive and after many months of recovery, he still occupies the gate of the construction site every day, leading the daily Catholic Mass. Though none of the injured or harassed protesters saw justice, they still continue to struggle on and block the gates multiple times each day.

Though an estimated 500 activists have been arrested since protests against naval base construction began in the village 6 years ago, dozens still live in Gangjeong Village to demand peace and justice. Below, is a profile of just some of the activists that join the daily movement for peace on Jeju Island.


Activist Profile: Sister Yang-up

Meet Sister Yang-up, a nun who has joined the struggle, and is now well-known by the police as they must forcibly remove her from blocking the gates every day. Every morning, after the sun rises, Yang-up, along with dedicated activists and fellow nuns from her convent, meet at the gate and sit in meditation to perform 백배, or 100 bows. The gate opens each morning at 7AM and as the view of concrete and construction cranes on the water are exposed, the nuns and activists begin to offer 100 bows for peace. Everyday, police in undercover cars watch and videotape the “illegal” action. Yesterday, several police officers came on the 95th bow asking us to not block the gate and disrupt the work of the construction site. We continued for the final bows disregarding the police officers’ request. Yang-up and I spoke after and joked that the police must be very thankful for the activists keeping them busy each day. Because the alternate gate was openly accessible and we were in our last minute of bowing, the police’s interference was unnecessary to say the least.

At 10 am each day, Yang-up joins the daily Catholic Mass and along with other nuns and priests, she blocks the gate during the ceremony. Just yesterday, Yang-up was removed from blocking the gate 15 times before the mass. As the police moved her away from the entrance and the construction trucks would come in and out, she would move right back to block the gate as the police drove away – 15 times. The members of the Catholic Church block the entrances each day in the place of activists because the police will not arrest nuns and priests. It makes one wonder what would happen if all the activists dressed as nuns and priests. Yang-up says that she hopes to be arrested before she goes back home to Seoul in August. Perhaps if a member of the Church is arrested, the movement will become more powerful.

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In the Peace Library and Cafe of Gangjeong Village, Sister Yang-up shows me the tan from hours of kayaking out with the Save Our Seas (SOS) team.

Sister Yang-Up is just one of the many activists who work tirelessly in efforts to maintain the Peace of Jeju Island and the serenity of Gangjeong Village. She exemplifies Nelson Mandela’s belief that “We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

A Living Utopia

Day 4 in Gangjeong Village

A hidden paradise of Jeju Island and a designated UNESCO Biosphere Conservation Area is now threatened as a naval base is being constructed for use by the U.S. and South Korea.

The largest temperate soft coral reef in the world and a myriad of endangered species are in danger. Gangjeong Village is seen as a utopia by visitors and residents alike.

Utopia is defined as an imagined place in which everything is perfect. This concept is often perceived as far-fetched and implausible as even the dictionary states utopia as “imagined”, but the village of Gangjeong is challenging that perspective. Gangjeong village has a population of about 1500. There is no theft, no beggars, and crime is unheard of. Paintings of flowers, trees, and symbols of peace are seen on the gates of the villagers’ homes and the walls of local shops and businesses. Tangerine trees are grown all over the island and farming and fishing take over the lifestyle. In passing, all the villagers greet each other with a smile or a friendly wave as many have known each other for years or generations. Yet, debate over the construction of a naval base has created tension and dichotomy. Homes and markets are now seen as anti-base or pro-base, and yellow flags on bamboo poles indicate which stores that anti-base community can support.

Past the bridge next to the lower gate of the naval base, you can walk along a serene, shaded path towards the rocks where the river meets the ocean. The view of neighbor islands, mountains, and the sound of flowing water are definitive of Gangjeong village and explain the unique culture of love and peace. Yet, as you sit on those rocks, you may be disturbed by the sounds of machinery and the view of large construction cranes that obstruct the peaceful atmosphere.

On your right, the construction is in full blast to build the naval base supported by stakeholders in the U.S. and South Korea as well as businesses like Samsung and Hyundai. Tall walls with barbed wire attempt to block the view of construction, but from the activists’ watchtower and through the Save Our Seas (SOS) team that kayaks around the base to monitor and record the construction, you can sense the tremendously detrimental impact a naval base will have on Jeju Island.

Music, art, community, and peace distinguish Gangjeong village from other towns. At the end of each long morning, regardless of the daily clashes with the police, the activists hold hands blocking the gate to sing and dance to songs dedicated to the village’s struggle for peace – with big smiles on their faces. It’s about 11:30 and the police are at the gate now just as they are everyday during the Catholic mass where the nuns and priests sit to block trucks from coming in and out.

Yesterday, Thursday the 18th, at least six coach buses filled with police flooded the gates with large shields to push the activists out and allow a conservative group to come in and tour the base. About 200 officers showed up to block 20 peaceful activists. You could hear the police shouting “push!” as they created a wall with their shields. Passing cars slowed as activists shouted at the police and struggled to cross the street or move freely along the sidewalk. Many expressed that this was the most police they’ve seen in months.

Outside of the daily struggle, the volunteers are working to plan the week long walk around Jeju Island in solidarity against the base (7/29 – 8/4). A Peace Festival will follow on August 4th at 12 noon in Gangjeong Village. Please join us in person or in spirit. More to come as the days pass.

For more information, please visit savejejunow.org or check out the “about” page of this blog.