Against Superpower Hegemony for People’s Living - A Chat with Jeju Activists against U.S. Naval Base Establishment

12/03/2019 - 10:03pm


A Chinese version is also available

In face of domineering cooptation and suppression from the Chinese government, some organisations and parties initiated the ‘White House Petition’ involving protesting outside the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong, in the hope that the U.S. will intervene into the political situation here to counteract forces from mainland China. It is hard not to cast a doubt over such discourse, if one has ever remotely heard of the ‘democracies’ according to Uncle Sam - the 2001 U.S. invasion of Iraq with huge casualties justified by the supposedly existent ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’; the adamant bailing out of failing corporations and at the same time shoulder-shrugging in face of masses of struggling domestic citizens who when broke in 2008; not to mention the open secret, National Security Agency’s continuous usurpation of hundreds of millions of personal contact details…… What exactly happens when the U.S. gets its nose into another country’s business?

On that question no one is more qualified to answer than residents in Jeju, South Korea. In 2009, Gangjeong Village, situated at South Jeju, was chosen by the South Korean government as the site of a newly planned naval base - for no other reason but taking U.S. warships on as VIPs, in order to strengthen American control and counterbalance Chinese military expansion in the region. Political maneuver between world major powers severely affected residential security and the ecology of the region. How did villagers and activists intervene the high-stake power play and in doing so what have they experienced, given there being no alternative power centers but grassroot organisations in Gangjeong?

Glimpses of the peace movement they staged were captured in The Memory of the 25th Hour, a film screened during last year’s “Hong Kong Social Movement Film Festival”. During the screening, “Hong Kong Social Movement Film Festival” was honored by the presence of three activists from Gangjeong - Choi Hyea-yeong, Bandi and Oh Doo-hee, as well as director Sungeun Kim, who shared the story behind the scenes with Hong Kong audience. Workers News is very honored to hear from them the situation of the struggle at Jeju and their respective reflections on the movement.

Jeju - Decades of U.S. Intervention following Japanese Occupation

Located at the South of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju had their own distinctive dialect and was largely marginalized due to its geological isolation. After the WWII, it was handed over to South Korea by the U.S. - which explains why it became one of the world’s most vocal places in protesting against U.S. military rule. Having experienced years of Japanese occupation, feeling ‘disappointed’ probably understates what a typical islander thinks of the immediately succeeding U.S. intervention alongside unending crop failure, epidemics and famines. In pursuit of the goal of a united Korean Peninsula they support the Communist Party of Korea.

On 3 April 1948, the Islander’s leftists decided to initiate a militant revolt to struggle against the U.S.-backed South Korean government, and called for boycotting the election, resulting in an electoral failure. This attracted the ensuring massacre, with the official number of deaths at 20-30 thousand - a staggering one-tenth of the Jeju population. Villages were massacred as well as being set on fire with, or without villagers (as they ran for survival). Remnants from the brutal deeds could be seen in form of the remaining circles of stones used as dwarf walls to separate different rooms in a Jeju dwelling. Some people returned to the ruins for plantations but none to reside.

The overwhelming U.S. influence over the island did not cease with time. A decade ago, the South Korean government started building a naval base allowing U.S. warships to park at at Gangjeong Village, south of Jeju; despite the islanders and outside supporters’ continuous struggle against it, the base was completed in 2016. The reclamation costed Gangjeong Village their whole seashore; what remains is the river mouth discharging a narrow stream of water into the sea. This severely impeded the natural flow of water. Sadly the villagers had lost confidence in the struggle due to the defeat - according to the three activists - and outside supporters became the core fighters in the current struggle.


Q: Worker News

A:  Choi Hyea-yeong, Bandi and Oh Doo-hee

Korean-English translation: Sungeun Kim


A Decade of Insistence: Against U.S. Military Foothold Conversion of Our Island

Q: It is very hard for a typical Hong Kong dweller to imagine the building of a naval base from scratch, not to mention it being built for another country’s interests. Can you please tell us more about the background of the naval base at Gangjeong, Jeju, and thoughts from those who are against the plan to establish it?

A: Gangjeong Naval Base is built with the United States’ intention to encircle China. Although the South Korean government declared from day one that the base would be used by South Korean Army only, in November 2017, a U.S. military nuclear submarine was tested at the base, and in April 2018, U.S. naval colonels paid a secret visit to Gangjeong. The naval base does not only threaten peace in South Korea but also the whole East Asia. Jeju being the pillar of the first island chain surrounding China means that islanders are at an extremely precarious position in case of military conflicts. We do not only oppose the construction of the naval base, but also the whole military-industrial complex. We, along with activists from the mainland, demand that the South Korean government reduce its military budget and aim at de-nuclearisation in the long term. In order to achieve that, twenty to thirty activists remained at Jeju to protest and also to become local residents, continuing the struggle with the identity as a resident.

Q: The issue of ‘militarisation’ has never been very well-known. How did the struggle around it arise?

A: Protesting against militarisation was amplified with the 2000’s wave of actions by the media especially during the Lee Myung-bak era (2008-2013). One-man-band media-reporter flourished as people reported events around their everyday live and propagated them through online social media. This fomented general empathy among the public and eventually a solidarity movement.

Thereafter, social movement transited from being clustered at megacity centers towards taking root in various local communities. For instance, the 2007 Korean government selection of Miryang as the designated site to construct the electricity network for Shin Kori  reactors saw resilient protestation from the neighbourhood, culminating into a climax when an elderly farmer burned himself alive in 2012 to express his anger and grievance concerning an indirectly related matter. This gave birth to a ‘No-nukes’ movement. Consider also the time when the 2011 strike against the heavy industry company Hanjin turned into a stalemate; a female worker Kim Jin-sook occupied a crane for over 200 days in protest, inspiring a poet to organise coaches drawing in people from around the country to support the workers in person. From then on, organisers from the mainland began to fly over and take part in Jeju Do residents’ protests at the scene.

Q: In preparing for this interview, we came across a piece of news regarding the current South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s apology to the Islanders for building the naval base. This happened in a forum that aimed at interacting with the locals on 11 October 2018, which he took part in after attending the navy’s international fleet review. What was going on? Was the South Korean government admitting fault here?

A: Quite the opposite - we do not consider it as good news. The fleet review you mentioned take place in Busan (the second largest city in the South Korean mainland) once every decade. We knew early on that the government wished to expand the budget and scale of the review this time round, and switching the venue to Jeju. Our village started a mini-referendum in March which indicated that we refuse the arrangement. The government, however, sent lobbyist to the village four times in July, offering the president’s apology in exchange for a green-light giving. Under this appealing offer, the Gangjeong village committee made the historical decision to collaborate with the government - they had not done so in the past 10 years - through calling a second referendum and successfully overturning the original decision. Thus, this review signified not only Gangjeong village’s encroachment by militarism, but also a significant crack in the villagers’ unity.

During October, Moon Jae-in visited the island to meet those who are willing to work with him - exclusively, excluding voices still firmly against the establishment of the naval base. We campaigned for a full three weeks by writing news reports regarding the government infringes residents’ human rights, as well as publicising our situation to the mainland.

Activists Transformed Residents: Long-term Organising and the Practice of Voluntary Poverty

Q: You mentioned just now that there are activists joining the local movement from the mainland. Does that create conflicts with islanders? What is the relationship between the two groups?

A: Gangjeong villagers initiated the opposition towards the naval base. The reason why they rejected the plan was not really related to the peace movement we mentioned above in the beginning; they acted purely to defend their original way of life. A lot of residents wish not to be involved at all and the organised body of villagers consists of only 70-80 of them, with the main focus on the construction being a threat to their livelihood. To use an analogy, we think that villagers are the water and activists the fish. The fish needs water to survive, while water without fish swimming in it becomes stagnant - we need each other.

The views of some villagers does not align with that of activists. Despite diversity among their opinions, villagers are led by those wishing to negotiate with the government. This is not to say that they are immoral or ignorant - far from it, they understand quite well the repercussions following the establishment of a base - it is down to the fact that activists had not been able to convince them through demonstrating an alternative way of life that works. It took ten years for us to transform the movement from one simply opposing the construction of the base to a peace movement; it will probably take another ten years for us to put into practice the way of life implied by our avowed aim.

Q: It seems to us that unfortunately the movement for peace at Gangjeong village, Jeju Do has entered a downturning phase. As activists, how do you keep your stamina up? What are actions that have been taken to keep yourselves going?

A: We take this period as a time for us to lay a solid foundation. On the one hand, we keep meeting our own friends; on the other hand we keep learning about the value of peace. We organised so many activities just to make sure that things keep happening. Small-scale activities are organised regardless of the urgency of the situation, in order to keep people updated on our situation - through these events we receive feedback that become our fuel. As the consensus does not lie on our side at the moment, we cannot but conserve our energy. Even though the struggle for change is difficult, the enjoyable process always keep us going.

We are now experimenting with a form of voluntary poverty. This shocked the villagers, as the shamelessly capitalist South Korean society makes even peasants dream of making a fortune. It is our aim to challenge this social work ethic. We labour while minimizing labour through mutual support. Our current group of 20-30 people organises various ‘extra-curricular activities’ during time off-work, such as managing a communal kitchen, cafe and recycling facilities. We also try to rent empty land for residential constructions as we reckon the importance of space. Besides that we try our best to publicise the struggle through organising choirs, bi-monthly English newsletter, art exhibitions and politics-focused tours to reveal to tourists the shady side of the island.

In order to support these movements, we formed the organisation ‘Gangjeong Friends’. We live every month on the minimum wage with financial support from the network of activists.

Q: The breadth and sheer number of action simply amaze. Once again, why emphasise the peasantry lifestyle? What is the difference in orientation between the agricultural villages and cities?

A: In the countryside people’s activities are more oriented towards living; in contrast city dwellers’ attention is centered at particular incidents. Living in rural villages allows us to explore events as we live our lives, whereas in cities we only gather when something huge happens. The latter comes with convenience in propagating and agitating through certain social events, but at the not-small cost of isolating rural voices at the margins. Therefore it is crucial for us to connect rural grassroot organisations with political organisations in the city.

During the dawn of the 21st century, a significant group of left-leaning youth with a background in student movements went to different parts of the South Korean countryside. They set up various small-scale grassroot social organisations, with Sungmisan Village in Seoul being one of the most famous example - as residents countered encroaching gentrification, they built their own schools and nurseries and organised their own cultural events. These organisations eventually gained sufficient strength to form and vote for their local Green Party representatives.

How Activists Become Resilient When Facing Unassailable Superpowers?

Q: Last but not least, can each of you share with us your lesson learnt from fighting against the South Korean state and the superpower, United States?


(Hyea) Defeatism and cynicism are common epidemic of our time and even I experience them every single day. But I still am hopeful because of all the kind souls that I met along the way and are still fighting along with me.

(Bandi) The process was daunting, but at the same time lots of good things happen. I used to be an activist in South Korean mainland, and I am used to following others’ values as I take part in actions. Living in Jeju with forty to fifty other people changed me drastically. Now distanced from the mainstream society, I create my own path and become stronger.

(Oh Doo-hee) Looking back at the last forty years, there had been lots of moments when I thought that I won the victory, although in reality they are only small wins. Today, I always feel that we are not proceeding but rather receding, in terms of both the environment and greediness in people’s heart. I am still searching for my reason to continue fighting, not for the fruit of winning, but for what’s right.

Put abstractly, hegemony indeed exists. The U.S. and China are indeed superpowers. But I don’t think it is true in another sense. As long as we are here they will never be victorious. The recent naval review - we destroyed it. Create cracks in Power that suppresses to excite and encourage people. Power desires order and that’s why we have to keep creating chaos.


《the memory of 25th hours》28/11/2018 screening information