By Christine Ahn, August 19, 2011
“The land and sea isn’t something you bought,” explained Kang Ae-Shim. “Why are you selling something that was there long before you were born?”
Kang Ae Shim is a haenyo, one of the legendary Korean women sea divers from Jeju Island who can hold their breath for up to two minutes while foraging the ocean floor for seafood. But today Kang and others are fighting to save their island from the pending construction of a South Korean naval base in Gangjeong village, which threatens to tear apart the age-old sisterhood of the haenyo and destroy the pristine ecology of Jeju’s shores. The government and construction contractors are attempting to stamp out the outcry by arresting, beating, fining, and threatening villagers and activists.
In April, renowned South Korean film critic Yang Yoon Mo was arrested for erecting and living in a tent on the coast for years to impede construction. Yang subsequently went on hunger strike for 71 days, 57 of which were spent in prison. In May, Choi Sung-hee, an artist and peace activist living with the villagers, was arrested for demonstrating and standing in the way of cement trucks to prevent them from pouring concrete over lava rock along the coastline. In June, Gangjeong village chief Kang Dong-kyun and peace activist Song Kang-ho confronted a large Samsung construction vessel in a small tugboat. When Song attempted to board the vessel, he was beaten and thrown back into the tugboat.
In July, I traveled to Gangjeong to witness the courageous fishing and farming community fight to keep their beautiful coastline from becoming the site of a naval base.
During my five days there I interviewed the villagers, including farmers, haenyo, and the village chief, as well as others from Jeju Island supporting the resistance. I learned three things: the process that led to Gangjeong becoming the base site was grossly undemocratic; the community fabric is being torn apart; and the Korean War is still playing out in this struggle on Jeju Island.
The morning after my nighttime arrival, I was stunned to see an approximately 30-foot tall fence surrounding the massive area of the proposed base. According to the villagers, the navy seized 160,000 pyong or 130 acres of farmland — equivalent to 169 football fields — from the port to the river. Inside the fenced-in area are remnants of greenhouses, torn-up farmland, huge cement planks, and abandoned tractors and other large machinery. The farm road to the coastline where the anti-base resistance has established a camp is bordered by amazingly rich and fertile soil, which during the Japanese occupation was allegedly the only soil on the volcanic island that could grow rice.
But the base’s impact isn’t limited to land. Off the coast of Jeju is the absolutely stunning Tiger Island and its sparkling surrounding waters, a UNESCO ecological reserve. According to Koh Yoo-Ki, an environmental policy analyst from Jeju, the planned naval base construction would destroy 98 acres of ocean floor inhabited by soft coral reef and nine endangered species.
The Jeju Island government had designated the coastline as a preservation area in 1991, but in December of 2009 then-Jeju Governor Kim Tae Hwan nullified the 1991 designation to make way for the naval base. “I cannot understand how there was five different protections for this area,” says Koh. “Before this naval base project, the state invested tons of money to preserve this area. Scholars used to come from the mainland to research corals. Now all of this has been undone.”
According to an August 7 letter to the editor in The New York Times, the South Korean embassy in Washington wrote, “The construction site was selected after accommodating opinions of local residents in a legitimate process, including town hall meetings.” The villagers say it was far from legitimate, democratic, or just.
On April 24, 2007, former village chief Yoon Tae Jun announced his approval of the planned base and said that an application to the Jeju governor, would be made. Typically a meeting to discuss similar civic action is held after a one-week waiting period, but this time it was scheduled for only three days later. On April 26, only 87 of the 1,050 Gangjeong residents – less than 10 percent – were present. Approximately half of those present were elderly haenyo, which according to Gangjeong farmer Jung Young-hee was strange since these women rarely, if ever, participated in village committee meetings. In an unprecedented manner, a vote to endorse the base was held by clapping. Never before in Gangjeong history had a vote been conducted this way. Yoon said he would hold another village committee meeting within 10 days and promised that if more people opposed the base, he would revoke his approval. But he never followed through.
On May 14, Jeju governor Kim Tae Hwan announced that Gangjeong village would be the site. The outraged villagers mobilized, forced the village chief out of power, and held a referendum on the proposed base in August 2007. According to Gangjeong village chief Kang Dong-Kyun, “On Aug 20 we held another referendum. 94 percent opposed the base. 725 people participated. 680 voted against, only 36 for, and nine votes were defective. The central government only recognized the first vote by the villagers committee; the second one wasn’t recognized.”
In January 2009, the Ministry of Defense approved the construction plan, and in April Gangjeong village filed a lawsuit in response, arguing that the nullification of the preservation area should be recalled, which the judge denied. The villagers appealed, and the case is now pending in the Supreme Court. A decision is likely due sometime this winter.
Bribing the Elderly
According to a 65-year-old haenyo from Gangjeong who opposes the base, the former village chief Yoon and a representative from the fishermen’s cooperative convened a meeting of haenyo before the April vote, and claimed they would be compensated if they supported the base project. When I asked her why she thought the haenyo supported the base, she said, “If there was no money, they would all protest the base.”
She went on to describe a deliberate effort by government and naval officials to bribe several haenyo. She said that the gentlemen were waiting to take the elderly haenyo out for meals after they had just returned from diving for several hours. The men told the haenyo that the navy would build a hospital for the elder haenyo. Her husband chimed in, “These elderly women didn’t know. [The Navy] used money to lure them. This is unethical and wrong to take advantage of them.”
Before Gangjeong was selected as the designated naval site, the Korean authorities approached two other villages –Hwasoon and Wimi –as early as 2002, but the residents, largely haenyo and fishermen who militantly opposed the base, blocked the initiative.
By round three, the Navy had become more sophisticated. “With the experience they had, the government went after the haenyo first in Gangjeong,” explains Lee Kyung-Sun, the general secretary of the Jeju Women’s Association. “They were cowardly for going after them,” says Lee, who insists that the haenyo should not be blamed if they supported the base, and that the focus ought to be on the government’s tactics. “Haenyo are victims too. They were tricked,” she said. “I still respect the haenyo. They have supported their family and the village, and they have preserved this area.”
Community Torn Apart
The row over the naval base has cleaved the community of Gangjeong haenyo who have worked together for over 40 years into two opposing groups. The 65-year-old haenyo from Gangjeong says that a few haenyo in opposition to the base refuse to enter the water with base supporters. “Now there is no conversation between the two groups,” she laments.
Kang Ae-Shim, a 56-year old haenyo from the neighboring village of Bopan explained, “The money that the haenyo was given is what you can make in one year.” She described how the haenyo from Gangjeong and Bopan physically fought in the water — the very same women who for years ate dinner and sang together at noraebang (karaoke). But the Gangjeong base decision changed that dynamic. The haenyo from Gangjeong “don’t have much to say because they are ashamed,” says Kang. There is a saying that it’s better to go into the ocean rather than go to one’s own mother’s home to borrow money. “All the things that come from the ocean, the abalone, the snails — these are not just a matter of life, they are medicine that strengthens the life spirit.” Kang argues that pollution from the naval base will threaten the haenyo’s livelihood.
Gangjeong villagers told me of a recent survey revealing that 50 percent of haenyo were suicidal and 70 percent are extremely psychologically stressed. Hyun Ae-Ja, the former Jeju representative to the National Assembly who has chained herself to a tree blocking police and construction trucks from entering the farm road believes that “ultimately the Jeju naval base will bring the destruction of the community and life.”
The Never-ending Korean War
The unresolved Korean War has served as justification for the continued militarism of the Korean peninsula, including the build-up of nuclear weapons in North Korea, massive military spending on both sides of the DMZ, intensified U.S.-ROK military exercises, and the expansion of military bases, like the one under construction on Jeju. The irony here is that South Korea is forcibly destroying the livelihoods of farmers, fishermen, women sea divers, and the rich marine ecosystems –on which we all depend for our human security –in the name of “national security.”
According to the South Korean embassy, “The Jeju base was built solely for the defense of the Republic of Korea and has no connections to American military installations. There are no plans to use the base for American missile defense, nor have Korea and the United States had any discussion regarding this issue.”
But many defense analysts challenge this claim. According to the Monterey Institute’s arm control specialist Jeffrey Lewis in an article in The New York Times, “the new Aegis destroyers to be based in Jeju would help defend South Korea against Chinese missiles and help defend Japan against missiles from both China and North Korea, [but they] won’t provide much defense for South Korea against North Korean missiles… Very few North Korean missiles would rise high enough on their way toward South Korea to give South Korean destroyers a shot.” Also in a rejoinder to the Embassy’s New York Times letter, Matt Hoey, a missile defense analyst at the Military Space Transparency Project, argues, “The Aegis sea-based missile defense system planned for Jeju is networked to United States space systems and ground-based X-band radar.”
Furthermore, earlier this spring, when I and several other Americans called the Korean Embassy in Washington to register our concerns, we all received similar versions of the same prepared response, “Don’t call us; call the U.S. State or Defense Departments; they are the ones who are pressuring us to build this base.” And it’s not just ordinary Americans who have been told that the United States is involved with the Jeju base. Even former U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings wrote in a June 15, 2011 op-ed in the Huffington Post that the Obama administration is “establishing a naval base with South Korea on Jeju Island.”
At a time of severe economic recession, the global community can no longer afford to spend billions of dollars daily on a misguided notion of military security that only increases the threat of military action, loss of human life, environmental contamination, and the loss of precious biodiversity.
On the morning we departed the mayor of Seogwipo announced that the police could seal off access to the public agricultural road to the coastline, blocking off primary access to anti-base protesters. National Defense Minister Cho Hyun-oh promised Jeju’s police commissioner as many resources as was needed to remove the base resistance camp. Police and undercover vans now monitor the three entrances to the base site 24 hours a day.
Since I left Gangjeong there has been an intense stand-off. Hundreds of police attempted to come through the farm road where several women chained themselves to trees to block their access. Thanks to the increasing pressure by civil society on the South Korean government to release the villagers and activists from prison, all have now been released, including the artist and activist Choi Sung-hee.
But as the global community’s awareness of the issue rises, so has Seoul’s crackdown on the peaceful protestors. On August 15th a reported 700 riot police from the mainland landed on Jeju with three water cannons, 16 large buses, and 10 riot control vehicles. Nevertheless, the villagers and activists have remained courageous and resolved to resist through nonviolent disobedience for their village, land, and sea. We must not relent as long as the villagers don’t.