by Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa, the Nuclear Resister
Despite growing condemnation at home and abroad, Korean navy contractors backed by hundreds of special police brought in from the mainland to repress local protest have for the last two weeks been dynamiting the unique volcanic coastline on Jeju Island to prepare the site for construction of a new navy base. The area near Gangjeong village is known as the Gureombi for its rounded rock forms that have long been regarded by locals as sacred. Scores of people – from local residents to church and NGO leaders and international observers – have been arrested, beaten, jailed and some deported during that time.
The destruction of the Gureombi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of freshwater rock wetlands that harbor rare sea life and provide drinking water for many island inhabitants, is proceeding apace. The present Korean government seems intent to create an irreversible impact on the area before elections scheduled for April 11. Recent legal and political challenges to contradictory government-sponsored reports about the suitability of the area for the announced mixed-use port (military ships including aircraft carriers and giant cruise ships) have yet to be resolved.
Following is a brief summary of recent actions as reported in English principally by Sung-Hee Choi, a member of the Gangjeong Village International Team, on the No Naval Base on Jeju Facebook page.
Movement of explosives through the village began on March 6. The Jeju governor was joined by the heads of local ruling and opposition parties in an appeal for the blasting not to begin, but they were ignored the next day. Dozens of arrests were made then, mostly of women who chained themselves to trucks and barricades to block the transport of explosives. French activist Benji Monnet and a photographer tried to kayak around police to the blast zone, but their craft was capsized in a collision with a Coast Guard boat, and they were arrested.
On March 9, British Trident Ploughshares cofounder Angie Zelter cut through the razor wire, and she and about 30 others determined to occupy the rocks in the construction zone were arrested. Zelter, Fr. Moon Kyu-Hyun and Rev. Kim Hong-Sool were held overnight. Rev. Sool, Fr. Kim Jeong-Wook and Rev. Lee Jeong-Hoon were all charged with the more serious offense of interfering with the business of the base construction company, Samsung.
The next day, police broke up attempts to put kayaks into the water, even wrestling some demonstrators under the water.
March 12 was a particularly long day of struggle. Four people in kayaks got into the construction zone before dawn. Benji Monnet and Kim Seri pulled away from hired guards who pursued them over the rocks long enough to clamber up on the long arm of an excavating machine, delaying construction for more than two hours until their arrest. Fourteen others were arrested after entering the area beyond the razor wire and jailed for the next two nights, while two teens who were arrested were released a few hours later.
On March 14, police arrested and released another 13 local activists in blockades, and sought arrest warrants for Zelter, Monnet and Kim. Zelter was charged with destroying public property during the protest on March 9 plus trespass soon after being released, and Kim and Monnet for obstructing business on the 12th and other earlier incidents. Zelter and Monnet were held in custody for immigration proceedings, and were eventually ordered to leave Korea. Zelter was released the next day and allowed voluntary departure, but police placed Monnet on a flight to Hong Kong that night. Kim was also released on the 15th.
That same day, Korean authorities intercepted three American members of Veterans for Peace who were on their way to Gangjeong for solidarity actions. Elliot Adams and Tarak Kauff arrived on Jeju from Shanghai but were prevented from leaving the airport and returned to Shanghai. Mike Hastie was taken off a plane in Seoul before its departure for Jeju.
Throughout these weeks, Yang Yoon-Mo continued the prison fast he began on February 6. When blasting began on March 7, he also began refusing even water or salt. On March 15, his health seriously deteriorating, Yang was persuaded by the concerned residents of Gangjeong to resume eating a thin gruel. He walked out of prison on bail on March 20, greeted by the mayor of Gangjeong and dozens of other supporters.
A new round of blasting in the main part of the Gureombi was to begin that day also. On March 19, police had to cut through plastic pipes to remove six people locked down in front of the explosives storage area. It was then reported that the explosives would now be taken by sea to the work area, not over land, and the new round of blasting began that afternoon, a day before the announced schedule.
The early start is thought to have occurred because a procedural hearing that could cause a halt to construction was set to begin on the 20th. The island government has demanded the Navy answer why construction should not be stopped while concerns about water and environmental impacts are unresolved. The nonpublic hearing was continued without resolution until March 29 at the request of the Navy. On March 20, a sit-in was begun at the Jeju Island governor’s office demanding that he order a halt of the blasting while the hearing is in recess, though even if he did, the Navy could readily ignore his will.
The next day, March 21, blasting resumed on the occasion of a visit by the chief of Korean joint naval operations. More explosives were detonated than on any previous date with 14 blasts inside one hour, muddying the springwater that flows from the Gureombi. Three people were charged with damaging property as they cut through the bramble of razor wire coiling across the rocks, while eleven others made it onto the rocks by sea, swimming and in kayaks.
Supporters are asked to pressure Mr. Woo Keun-Min, Island governor, to “command” the construction work to stop; to revoke the Navy license for reclamation of the coast and sea of the base project area; and to recover the absolute preservation area which was annulled for the naval base project through undemocratic procedures in 2009. This will really help to stop the ongoing destruction being caused by the naval base project.
Father Kim Jeong Wook and Rev. Lee Jeong Hoon, whose repeated arrests have led to charges of with interfering with the business of building the navy base, remain in jail as of March 23.
Inspiring acts of nonviolent resistance to the naval base have resulted in at least 329 people being taken into custody or charged by police from 2010 through February 2012.
Jeju Island Resistance Heats Up as Navy Prepares To Blast for Base
From the Nuclear Resister #165, March 6, 2012
The Korean navy is set to begin blasting Gureombi in March, the unique volcanic rocks with fresh water springs on the south coast of Jeju Island. It’s the latest, most destructive step taken in the construction of a provocative military port. Residents of Gangjeong, a village with over 400 years of cultural ties to Gureombi, have waged an epic struggle of nonviolent resistance to every step of the planned navy base for nearly five years. Coast access for the villagers has already been severely restricted by a new construction gate, and in recent weeks, huge coils of razor wire have been stretched along the coast to keep base resisters who swim or kayak around the gates from reoccupying the treasured landscape.
Every day sees many protest activities, and villagers and their supporters regularly risk arrest by blocking gates, locking down under stopped trucks, and climbing the fence, swimming and kayaking into the construction zone. Every night, a candlelight cultural celebration ensues as the people of Gangjeong renew their commitment by sharing news updates, honors, speeches, song, and dance.
Yang Yoon-Mo, a noted film critic and professor who fasted for 70 days while jailed last year for interfering with the business of base construction, is back in jail since January 30. He was on probation, and an 18-month suspended sentence from last summer was revoked. As promised, when he was transferred to Jeju Prison on February 6 he began refusing food until the base construction is canceled or he dies. He said, “If Gureombi lives, I live. If Gureombi dies, I die. Do not cry for me. Cry for the future generations who may not be able to feel the beauty of Gureombi.”
Scores of local residents have been enjoined from interfering with business, the charge most likely to result in prison time. Police, many brought in from the mainland by the score, and private security workers are a constant intimidating presence on the streets of the village. But prosecutors are reluctant to keep some of the resisters in jail, particularly dozens of Roman Catholic priests and nuns who have demonstrated the commitment of the Korean church to preserving peace by resisting the strategically provocative base.
On Christmas Day, 500 Catholics joined villagers for mass. The next day, when 15 people were blocking the gate, their number nearly doubled when priests joined them. Police arrested 27 people, many who fasted until released from jail. The next day, 12 priests arrested in prior weeks and months were in court to be indicted for obstructing business, and warned not to continue.
Another 29 people were arrested at the construction gate on January 10, including 18 nuns and a monk during a religious service and three teenage girls who were just dancing. They were charged with impeding the work and most held overnight. Six days later, Br. Park Do-Hyun climbed aboard a cement truck to prevent it from entering the village, and was arrested for the sixth time in a year. The next day, Fr. Lee Kang-Suh was arrested trying to talk to a cement truck driver.
On January 26, five people were arrested at sea in kayaks as they tried to stop work on a barge preparing for the blasting.
Yang Yoon-Mo was arrested with two others on January 30, when several construction trucks were prevented from entering the village and the three men crawled under them. Police this time avoided arresting Br. Park, who publicly proclaimed his willingness to be imprisoned for the cause before crawling under another truck.
In late February, Gangjeong hosted more than 30 international board members and activists of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space for their annual meeting. On February 24, ten internationals and six Koreans were arrested after crawling under the razor wire onto the Gureombi. That night’s candlelight vigil took place at the police station, where five were still being held. When some blocked the prison entrance, police declared it an illegal protest, and arrested 20 more people. Most were released before midnight.
On March 1, swarms of police again surrounded resisters trying to get their kayaks into the water. Four were arrested after a day of tug-of-war with police and boats.