Coordinator Trip Report - South Korea

June 15-20 2010

From: Bruce Gagnon


The wall along the base

Yesterday's action outside the U.S. Embassy. The embassy faces the South Korean government building - a symbol of who is really in charge

A photo from one of the monthly vigils outside the U.S. embassy in Seoul

We spent the day inside Seoul yesterday attending a couple different events. First we went to a 10th anniversary remembrance ceremony of the June 15 Declaration that was signed between the governments of South and North Korea that began to open up contacts between the people and family members. But in the last two years the right-wing government in South Korea of President Lee has begun to destroy those steps toward progress and he has resumed hostility toward the North.

Leading politicians from a couple different opposition political parties spoke at the event and after it was finished the former minister of unification came up to our delegation (which had been recognized during the ceremony) and introduced himself.

Following that event our delegation that includes Michael Lujan Bevacqua (Guam) and Shinako Oyakawa (Okinawa) went to a protest in front of the U.S. embassy that is held each month by Global Network affiliate group called SPARK (Solidarity for Peace & Reunification in Korea). SPARK began holding these regular protests at the embassy in 1999 and for a few years were met with arrests and beatings by their government. But persistance paid off and they are now left alone although the police were noticeably present.

At this protest, attended by about 100 people, they had reports on key issues including the recent sinking of the South Korea Naval vessel and reports from the U.N.'s recent NPT Review Conference. Peace groups and the public in South Korea remain convinced that North Korea had nothing to do with the sinking of the Navy ship which happened at the time of joint U.S.-South Korean war games aimed at North Korea.

After a wonderful lunch of grilled fish we were taken on a driving tour of the vast U.S. Yongsan Army Post that sits in the center of busy Seoul. The Army base is on both sides of hectic downtown streets and its stone walls with circular razor wire at the top is a visible reminder that this unwanted intrusion not only takes precious land but also makes the city a military target.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense sits inside the Army base which well illustrates the fact that South Korea always has been a military colony of the United States. After WW II ended, and the Japanese colonizers were removed from power in South Korea, the U.S. put the Koreans who had been collaboraters with fascist Japan into positions of power.
The Korean War was essentially a civil war against those Japanese imperial collaboraters and those who had fought against the Japanese occupation and could not accept the U.S. as the new colonizing government. Since the Korean War never resulted in a peace treaty the war continues to this day with the U.S. still remaining in control of the South Korean government.
We were taken to dinner last night by leaders of the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification (PKAR). You might remember several postings I did late last year about the three activits from PKAR who had been jailed by the Lee government under the "National Security Act". Their crime allegedly was calling for national reunification and demanding that U.S. military bases in Korea be closed. After several months in jail they were released after the high court ruled that they had been illegally spied on by the government.
Many members of this organization had been jailed for many years due to their political work. One man at the dinner last night was in prison for 36 years. During the Korean War, as a 16 year old boy, he had fought against the U.S. and had refused to renounce his belief that the U.S. had become another colonizing power just like Japan had previously been.
One of the PKAR leaders told me that it would take the U.S. 1,000 years to make up for all the wrong they had done to North Korea. From the carpet bombing of the north during the war (the North Koreans had to live underground because virtually every building in the north was destroyed), to the present situation of perpetual preparations for war that has kept the north in a state of seige, the U.S. has prevented North Korea from fully developing much like Cuba has been prevented from doing the same.
Earlier in the day while at the U.S. embassy protest, one speaker from the political prisoners family organization told the crowd that "Our hope is very far away." There is much sadness in Korea as the nation remains divided and the U.S. displays no intention of ending its aggressive military control in the region. The U.S. likes having military bases in Korea because of its strategic borders with China and Russia. Control and domination of the region is most important and what happens to the good people on the Korean peninsula is of no interest to the U.S. war machine.


New Army resident apartment towers being built on stolen farm lands at Pyeongteak (Click on photo for better view)

I wrote the following on the bus (June 16) from Pyeongteak to the Kimpo Airport in Seoul as we make our way there for a flight to Jeju Island.

This morning our four-person group took the train from Seoul to Pyeongteak to meet with activists who are organizing against the expansion of two U.S. bases in their community. One is the Army base called Camp Humphreys (which was a Japanese imperial military base during WW II) and 13 kilometers away is the Osan Air Force Base.

As we drove the narrow farm roads on the perimeter of Camp Humphreys we saw the clear signs of massive construction going on. Housing for 10,000 military personnel and their families is being built on one edge of the Army installation. The base expansion was to be completed in 2008 but has been delayed until 2015 by the national peace campaign of opposition that peaked between 2002-2006. Another reason for the delays has been the hardball negotiations between the U.S. and the South Korean government, as the Americans have demanded that the Koreans pay a larger share of base construction costs.

Osan AFB, like Camp Humphreys, is also taking major tracks of farming land from surrounding villages in order to build a second runway and new munitions storage areas. The fighter bombers were practicing take-offs and landings as we drove around the base and the screaming planes reminded us that the levels of noise and air pollution that local residents have to daily deal with would never be acceptable to most Americans.

But the big question that must be answered is why is the Pentagon doubling its military presence in the Asian-Pacific region? Is all this being done because of North Korea? Hardly.

On June 16, 2009 Obama and South Korean right-wing President Lee signed a new “Strategic Flexibility” agreement that turns “local responsibility” for defense of South Korea over to their military forces. The U.S. has bigger fish to fry.

Under “Strategic Flexibility” South Korea will be responsible to defend against North Korea (who is never going to initiate an attack on the south anyway) while the U.S. intends to use its expanding military presence throughout the region for its own imperial ambitions.

I asked one of our hosts at the Pyeongteak Peace Center (Yongdong Yang) just whom the U.S. was aiming at in the region if it was not North Korea? His response was straight to the point as he answered, “Russia and China. Russia has large supplies of natural gas [actually the largest in the world]. It’s about energy wars.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Alongside the Osan AFB runway, which was buzzing with U.S. warplanes, sits many concrete bunkers with the new ground-based PAC-3 (Patriot) “missile defense” system launchers raised up and ready to fire. I asked our host which direction they were pointing toward and he told me they were aimed at China not North Korea.

You can imagine that China is not pleased with these U.S. military moves throughout the region. These same kinds of Pentagon base expansions are happening in Japan, Okinawa, Guam, Australia, and more. The Obama administration has recently approved the sale of PAC-3 “missile offense” systems to be sold to Taiwan – a Cuban missile crisis in reverse except this time most American people know nothing about these dangerous and provocative deployments.

Instead the American people just hear that China is upgrading its military and we are left to believe that they are just doing this because they have decided to take over the world. But the truth is that it is the U.S. that has military bases in over 130 countries around the world – not China or Russia.


A photo display of soft coral reefs and other sea life along the coast in the Gangjeong village

Mayor Kang of Gangjeong village sleeps four hours a night as he leads the fight against the Navy base plan

I am back in Seoul now after two nights in the Gangjeong village on Jeju Island, South Korea. When we arrived in Gangjeong we were met by Corazon Fabros from the Philippines who is one of the key leaders of the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases. Also joining us was a staff representative from the peace group called SPARK (Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea).

Upon arrival in Ganjeong we went straight to the office of Mayor Kang who has been leading the villagers in their struggle to save their farming community of about 2,000 residents from the Navy base. Gangjeong grows tangerines and other vegetables and of course is a fishing community as well. It's rocky coast reminds me much of Pemaquid Point near where I live in Maine. The Navy base plan calls for the pouring of tons of cement on top of the rocks in order to build a pier for the Aegis destroyers and aircraft carriers that would be ported there. The sea creatures and plant life that thrives within those rocks would be buried alive.

The mayor recapped their latest efforts to physically resist the Navy base construction. More than fifty of the villagers have been arrested for putting their bodies in the way of the bulldozers that have been brought to clear land. The recent election of a new governor on Jeju Island gives the villagers some hope as he has called for more dialogue between the Navy and the villagers.
In a village-wide referendum on the Navy base 95% of the people voted against it. Mayor Kang though sadly confirmed that about 25% of the actual residents in the village do support the base construction. The Navy has offered bribes to some of the old sea diving women in their attempts to divide a village that previously had been united like a family.
Mayor Kang spoke eloquently about the need to "coexist with nature". He said that "Jeju is at the crossroads to becoming either an eco-friendly island or militarized." He told us that the village had decided to build a peace museum using traditional Korean style architecture for the building.
In July (during the slow farming time) the villagers will hold their third pilgrimage around the island to bring the issue to the public's attention. The walk will last one week during the hot season. Many of the villagers are elderly but they will make the pilgrimage through all the other villages on the island because they feel they must continue to do everything possible to try to block the building of the base.
The Samsung Corporation (a big development company in addition to building electronics) is one of the forces pushing the construction of the base. Another of the corporations that would be involved in the base construction is the same company that is building the Korean aerospace center. So when the Navy says the base in Gangjeong will be "high-tech" many villagers suspect the base will be also connected to space technology.
On our second day in Gangjeong a community forum was held (at about the same time the South Korean soccer team was playing for the World Cup) and 70 people turned out. Each of the people in our delegation spoke and here are a few key points that were made:
  • Corazon Fabros reported that the U.S. still refuses to take responsibility for the toxic pollution long after its Navy base was closed in the Philippines. "We have to match our enemies strength with our unity and solidarity," she said.
  • Shinako Oyakawa (University student from Okinawa) shared that 20% of their island has U.S. military bases since the end of WW II. Now the U.S. is attempting to build another base on environmentally sensitive lands in Henoko, Okinawa. They have learned that the U.S. military created the Henoko base plan all the way back in 1966. 85% of Okinawa citizens want the U.S. bases closed.
  • Michael Lujan Bevacqua (College instructor from Guam) said that 30% of Guam has U.S. bases, and the U.S. wants to build two more, also to be located in environmentally sensitive locations on the island. The U.S. military controls the largest water source on the island. The U.S. Navy wants to bring nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to Guam which will kill the coral reefs.

The South Korean government has announced that they intend to begin actual construction of the Navy base in September and expect to be finished in 2014. The South Korean Defense Minister has called the Gangjeong villagers "African natives" in an obvious racist slap at the fact that they are unwilling to be controlled.

The people in Gangjeong are a rare inspiration. They intimately feel their sacred connection to the land, the sea, the rocks, the fish, and the coral. As a village young and old alike are taking collective responsibility to protect it all. It is not a common sight in today's world to see virtually an entire village moving together with such common purpose. It indeed is a pure honor to be able to witness and find even small ways to support such a principled struggle.

My primary lesson from listening to the villagers of Gangjeong, and the other activists from Okinawa, Guam, and the Philippines is that the American people have no clue about the suffering that our military bases around the world are causing the people who have to deal with these outposts of empire. Many U.S. citizens seem to avoid opening their hearts to the enormous harm that is being done in our name with our tax dollars. The environmental degradation that results from these U.S. bases is beyond imagination.

The voices of those opposing U.S. bases must be heard. Each of us should hear their crys for support and we must do more in our own communities to bring these appeals to the public attention. The American people must learn that there is a consequence somewhere in the world when our planes, ships, tanks, and troops are deployed in a particular country. There is an impact on the environment and the human population who live there and who have a right to self determination.


Right-wingers in South Korea have been busy in recent days after progressives sent a letter to the UN's Security Council questioning the "official story" about the sinking of the Cheonan Navy ship

Meeting here with Dr. Chung (left) whose parents were survivors of the massacre at No Gun Ri during the Korean War

Our delegation getting ready to board the bus in Gangjeong village for trip to airport and return to Seoul. I've got on my Korean World Cup soccer shirt that illustrates many activists hopes that the teams from the North and South would end up in the semi-finals against one another - a reunification activists dream come true. But unlikely to happen this time.

* On our last day in South Korea our thinned out delegation took a trip north to within an hours drive of the DMZ to a village called Mugeonri. Since 1979 the U.S. military has been scooping up large holdings of rice farm land and complete villages in the area in order to create a huge military training area for tanks and armored vehicles. The people in this area have lived here for 400 years and have relatives just over the border in North Korea. The process of having their lands stolen from them is doubly sad because not only do they lose their sacred farms and communities but the military maneuvers that are carried out there are aimed toward North Korea and any attack is sure to kill their relatives.

Each time there is a U.S. military war game in the tree-lined mountains surrounding their declining village populations, 30-60 tanks and armored vehicles trundle through their streets in the early morning or late at night. In 2002 two local school girls were ran over by U.S. Army tanks as they walked to a birthday party. Those responsible for running them down were never punished and the killings became a huge controversy all across South Korea.

Led by the chairman of the local village committee, and a leader from SPARK, we were driven around to see the growing area that makes up the training fields. When we came to a padlocked iron gate blocking our entry onto a road through the mountains, the local chairman discovered that the gate was not actually locked. So he threw open the gate and we piled back into his van and into the mountainous war rehearsal zone we drove. Soon we came to several military camps, set up with tents and South Korean Army soldiers in full battle gear. We got out saying we wanted to see their sacred tree that has bark that turns water blue. The soldiers kept shouting at us to move on and one of them had his machine gun pointed at us the entire time we were outside the van pointing to the tree on a hill just beyond their war camp.

We also stopped by the large tombstone honoring the two teenage girls and heard the story that it had been purchased by the soldiers from the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division whose personnel had run them over. Local Korean activists have requested the Army remove the tombstone so that the community can replace it with one of their own but so far the Army has ignored their request.

  • I am writing this from the airport in Washington DC where I have a five-hour wait to catch my plane back to Maine. I did not sleep during the 13 hour flight from Korea back to the U.S. and watched seven movies. My mind is mush now and doing this blog is a chore.
  • While on Jeju Island we watched a half-hour video and I was struck by one phrase: "We don't know where our ending point is....but we do know that when there is a start there is an end."
  • We had alot of fun on the trip and of particular interest was Michael Lujan Bevacqua's quest to count the number of Dunkin Donut shops along our journey. I think he hit about 20 in all, and while a nice joke, it made the important point about the corporate colonization of South Korea. Michael, from Guam, has a blog where he has posted photos and his reflections throughout our trip. You can find it here
  • Dr. Chung (in the photo above who we met the night before we left) is the chairman of the citizens committee to bring justice to those who were massacred at No Gun Ri on July 26-29, 1950. He and his father (both his parents are survivors of the massacre that killed up to 400 innocent civilians) have worked for years to bring the massacre to light and ultimately proved that the carnage had been ordered by high-level U.S. military brass. Recently a mainstream South Korean TV network did a documentary about No Gun Ri and he presented it to me so it could be shown at the national Veterans for Peace 25th anniversary convention that will be held in Portland, Maine on August 25-29.
  • The big story in Korea these days though is the sinking of the South Korean Navy boat called the Cheonan. Progressive activists from an organization called the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) sent a letter to the UN's Security Council seriously questioning the South Korean right-wing President Lee's "official" account that puts the blame on North Korea. PSPD also calls for a real international investigation of the incident.
One of the Naval experts who was on the South Korean investigative committee disagreed with the formal findings of the final report and maintains that the ship was grounded (and broke apart) in rough shallow waters during U.S.-South Korean military exercises that put these ships near North Korean waters.

South Korean President Lee is furious with PSPD for "unilaterally" approaching the UN Security Council and has helped stoke up the anger of right-wingers who have been daily attacking the offices of PSPD in Seoul. You can read an interesting article in a South Korean newspaper (in English) here

You can also read a letter from SPARK to the UN Security Council here

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