On an island designated last year as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, bulldozers are carving out a deep-water naval port that will house 20 US warships. All that stands between the fragile coast and the massive destructiion are half a dozen determined bodies.
My son, a friend and I arrived by bus on Thursday, September 13, 2012 and stopped in the small town of Gangjeong on Jeju Island off the southern coast of South Korea. Not quite sure which way to go, we took a few steps to the right and were greeted by colorful peace signs adorning a brightly painted white fence made of cinder blocks. We had a feeling we were in the right place.
A few paces later, posters taped to the sides of buildings informed us that we were in the Peace Village.
Following a stop at a local house to ask for directions, the owner helped us locate a person we were looking for and we were led to the small Peace Village headquarters building. This one-time house site was donated to the group; the house was then bulldozed and the new, very simple headquarters building was constructed.
It is now home to the group struggling for the survival of a small piece of coastline bordering Gangjeong Village, where the mega-corporation Samsung – supported by the US and South Korean governments – is demolishing the sacred coastal rocks of the Gangjeong Village people in order to build a deep-water port that reportedly will have the capacity to house 20 warships, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines and Aegis Missile Defense destroyers, along with 7,000 naval personnel.
All of these efforts have been enforced on a daily basis by Korean police flown in from the Korean capital of Seoul. Depending on the day and the intent, the police numbers have ranged between 100 and 1,000. They have exercised both peaceful and brutal means to disperse crowds, and have sent protestors to the hospital and to jail with their tactics.
The coastline has been drilled and blasted to create an area to produce more concrete tetrapods to block the tide. Offshore, dredges have deepened the water; destroying centuries-old soft coral reefs; potentially driving out a small pod of Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphins – the only known pod in South Korea; endangering the red crab population; and affecting the fishing that has supported the small, peaceful surrounding village that has depended on local seafood for hundreds of years.
This area is reported to provide habitats for 400 plant species, 504 invertebrate species, 86 species of seaweed, 58 species of fish and a 7.4-hectare soft coral forest.
About a mile to the west starts the UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve of Tiger Island, its buffer zone directly in the path of ships that would be entering and exiting the proposed port.
On Friday, September 14, sitting in front of the two gates of entry to the naval port construction site, Catholic and Jesuit priests, and several South Korean activists are waiting to be carried away and/or jailed for their attempts to slow down the procession of cement trucks and workers coming in to turn the volcanic rock coastline into concrete platforms and piers for the deep-water port.
Ironically, UNESCO just last year designated Jeju Island as one of the seven most beautiful natural environments on earth. Another bit of irony is that the 2012 World Conservation Congress, where the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is holding their conference this year, is right down the road.
While today’s human blockade will likely be non-violent and end with activists being physically lifted and removed from the driveway entrance, to date protestors also have been beaten, kicked, pushed, jailed and several hospitalized.
This struggle, led by a relatively small core group of people asking that the militarization of Jeju Island cease, has been going on for five years, while an apparently under-handed decision to allow continued construction, permitted the huge cement tetrapods to litter nearly a mile-long stretch of beach.
Each tetrapod has four long arms, about 4 feet wide and six feet long, all joined in the middle.
In the midst of these unsightly, concrete behemoths, front-end loaders, cranes and cement trucks can be seen transforming this once-sacred and beautiful stretch of coast into a steel and concrete complex that will house US and South Korean military weapons of mass destruction.
An April 2012 presentation by Global Ministries documents that 94 percent of the 725 members of the 1,050 village electorate who voted, voted against the motion to permit construction of the base.
Saturday, September 14, as I watch the police begin to gather, exercise, stretch and prepare for the clearing of the protestors to allow the cement trucks to enter the construction site, a slight tension builds.
The hour-long Catholic mass held every day except Friday has ended, the music has stopped, and approximately 150 police are marching toward one of the entrances. Photographers surround the six protestors, four lying and sitting on the ground with arms and legs intertwined, and two sitting in chairs.
While I do not understand much of the Korean language, based on my experiences in the US, it appears that the police have asked the protestors to clear the entrance. Some of the police carry batons, others have radios and there is no riot gear in sight – this time.
The police have spoken to the protestors again and the protestors have answered back, sitting motionless with calm resolve. They have been through this before – as many as five to nine times each day to slow the progress of the cement trucks.
Eight policewomen march in step from the back of the police formation and surround two of the women sitting on the ground. I witness the police prying apart the tenacious grips of arms and legs.
The people of Jeju are fighting for their coast, for their heritage and for their island against the formidable force of corporate and government collaboration. The faces of the police are strained, and it is not an easy task for them to disengage the men and women who come back, day after day, to sit in front of the cement trucks.
Once freed, the police lift the activist and forcibly carry her off to the side, obviously against her will. Immediately, approximately 25 male police break rank and surround her with a locked-arm semi-circle, two to three men deep, forcing her against a stone wall.
The next line of eight policewomen march forward, and this process repeats until the three women activists are all confined in this temporary human containment unit formed by the police to prevent the activists from returning to their places at the entrance.
Eight men march in to lift the lone, struggling man from the ground and place him against the wall with the others. All of the policemen and policewomen who participated are breathing heavily and seem relieved that this part of the clearing process is completed.
The two remaining older, seated activists were lifted in their chairs and set to the side of the driveway. One of them stood up, walked to the adjacent bridge and waved a flag that, roughly translated, proclaims, “The villagers will absolutely oppose the construction of this base until the day we die.”
Once cleared, the open gates allowed seven cars to exit and 19 vehicles to enter, nine of which were cement trucks. The police suddenly did an about face, released the entrapped activists, marched back to their busses and cars and departed.
The clearing process took approximately 22 minutes and was considered a success by the activists. Typical clearings take from 10-20 minutes, and doing this five to nine times a day can delay daily construction efforts by an hour or two. In a month this can mean nearly three days of construction time lost.
I was told by one of the activists that the current cement company working at the site has committed to finish its contract and that Samsung will then have to find a new contractor, since the cement company claims to be losing money due to these delays.
As the police exit the scene, the good-natured and peaceful activists calmly approach the gate and once again sit in their chairs and on the ground, educate passersby, and patiently wait for the next opportunity to delay construction, hoping that somehow a halt will be called to the desecration of their natural surroundings and heritage.
With smiles on their faces, they know that they have once more slowed down the giant.