A Fight between David and Goliath

by on Tuesday, 23 April 2013 Comments

Non-violent resistance against the construction of a naval base in South Korea

Since 2007, a small village in South Korea has led a non-violent resistance against the construction of a naval base next door to a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The official reasons for the construction of a military base on the self-governing island of Jeju, about 80 kilometers from the mainland, are to allow for better policing of the sea-lanes and faster response to any acts of aggression by North Korea.

The Seoul government emphasizes that the Jeju Civilian-Military Complex Port will lead to regional development and provide maximum compensation for residents and investment into various facilities.

A majority of the 1,800 Gangjeong villagers, who mainly live from agriculture and fishery, do not accept these arguments as valid. In a referendum held in 2007, 94 percent of the eligible voters opposed the naval base. They fear that its sheer size - once completed, the base will house 8,000 marines, up to 20 destroyers, several submarines and two 150,000-ton luxury cruise liners - will likely lead to the erasure of their community, 450 years of local history, culture and traditions. From the time the construction of the base was announced, activists, catholic priests and nuns, protestant pastors, law professors, teachers, artists, writers, families and students from all around South Korea have joined the villagers' protest. In order to hinder and delay construction, protesters file lawsuits and press for a reconsideration of the project nationwide, but also regularly block the entrance to the construction site with their mere bodies, chain themselves to anything available and go on hunger strikes.

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The island of Jeju is known for its unique nature and biodiversity attracting more than eight million tourists in 2012. It is part of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World and is the only place on Earth to receive all three UNESCO designations in natural sciences: UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (2002), UNESCO World Natural Heritage (2007) and UNESCO Geopark (2010). The sea off Gangjeong in the south of the island is home to rare soft corals and is one of the most important habitats for the endangered indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin.
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Recognizing the natural value of the coast off Gangjeong, the Jeju government designated it an 'absolute conservation zone' in 1991, prohibiting any further development. In 2004, the Ministry of Environment and Culture designated the area as protected. To carry out the construction of the naval base, however, the governor of the island recalled the distinction of absolute conservation in 2009. Sung-Hee Choi, an activist and artist from the mainland who has moved to Jeju to be part of the anti-base movement, points out that "only three percent of Jeju's coast is protected habitat. And it is exactly here that they want to build a naval base".
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The entrance to the 50 hectares construction site in the village of Gangjeong is located on a busy main road linking the capital of Jeju to the second biggest city, Seogwipo. Every hour, about 300 police stationed on a public parking 100 meters away march to the entrance gate. The protesters (between 20 and 40 on normal days) take position in front of the gate and sit on chairs holding banners or sit on the floor with interlocked arms and feet.
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It usually takes the police about 20 minutes to clear the way and secure the entry and exit of the trucks. The protesters do not resist except for grabbing onto each other to make it more difficult to be removed. The eerie silence of the protestors is at times broken by the occasional scream of pain. During these 20 minutes, the busy traffic on the main road comes to a standstill.
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As soon as the last truck has entered and/or exited the construction site, the police disappear and the protesters go back to their activities: reading books, distributing flyers to passers-by, writing blogs, playing with the dogs or having a nap.
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Shin Yong-In, a lawyer and law professor from Jeju Island, who regularly joins the blocking of the gate explains, "I have no choice but to join the civil disobedience. We have exhausted all legal efforts to stop the domination of unjust power and there is nothing that I, as a lawyer and law professor, can do to stop the construction of the naval base. Villagers and peace activists are at the door of the building site day and night to delay the construction of the naval base, if only for five minutes. They face prison sentences, but continue nonetheless to follow the law of conscience. I decided to be part of this civil disobedience until the government and the military stop the construction".
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Many of the long-term activists just planned to visit for a few days and ended up staying. Every week, catholic priests and nuns from different dioceses visit Gangjeong to hold masses and to join in the blockade of the entrance gate. A catholic priest explains that he comes down to Jeju during his free days, as the struggle is one of social justice that concerns the whole nation. Protestant orders sent volunteers down regularly as well.
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The fight against the naval base currently mobilizes more than 125 non-governmental organizations across South Korea (ecologists, pacifists, Christians, Buddhists and associations for human rights) and more than a hundred abroad. The most striking feature of the protest is the protesters' resilience. Young and old and from a multitude of social backgrounds, despite their bruised bodies, the odds stacked against them and the risk of high fines or imprisonment, they kept returning to the front of the gate to fight for what they believe is right. But since tensions have been rising with the North, police crackdown has become more severe and more protesters have been arrested.
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Since the start of the construction, around 700 arrests have been made with 500 indictments and 22 people imprisoned. However, following the presidential election of Park Geun-hye in December 2012, fines against the protesters have been soaring. The total amount of fines for anti-base protest has reached approximately US$450,000 in addition to damage compensation fees of approximately US$280,000. Between January and mid-February 2013 alone, around 100 people went on trial and were sentenced to combined total fines of US$90,000 . This seems to be the government's newest tactic to discourage protesters from taking part in the protest.
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The reasons for which activists from across South Korea and abroad oppose the base are manifold. They include calls for environmental protection, social justice, demilitarization and non-violence. Support for the anti-base movement at the national level is limited, one reason being that the mainstream media has not picked up the topic. When it has, it has portrayed the activists as troublemakers and has tried to discredit them. In times of heightened tensions with the North, calls for demilitarisation, peaceful resolution of conflict and the protest against military bases are heavily criticised, and the Gangjeong protesters are insulted as undermining the security of the state and being pro-north Korean agitators.
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It is a fight between David and Goliath, in which corporate/government interests clearly take precedence over democratic agency. The Jeju anti-naval base protests in themselves and their persistence and endurance in the face of mainstream media demonization, raising fines and government pressure, is a clear sign of a civil society awakening. This movement is already becoming an inspiration for other non-violent protests, be it in South Korea, the region or even worldwide. Whatever the outcome of the protest, Mayor Kang says "we have been fighting for five years against the construction of the naval base in Gangjeong. If need be I will fight for another 50 years. This is the Island of World Peace! We are firmly convinced that peaceful protests can bring down dictatorships".

All photos by C. Reckinger.

For more stories and photography by Carole Reckinger, please click here to visit here blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carole Reckinger

Hello everyone. I am a trained peace worker, reporter, photographer and researcher specialised on human rights in East and Southeast Asia from Luxembourg. I graduated from SOAS with an MSc in International Politics and a BA in Development Studies and Southeast Asian Studies and I am currently studying for an LLM in international law as a distance learning student. 

Website: www.carolereckinger.com

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