The tiny, southern-most island of South Korea is known for three things, according to an old saying: wind, rocks and women. Traditions seem bound as much to the rhythms of the sea as to collective memory, social convention or economics.
But since eight years ago, plans for a new naval base on Jeju Island have turned life upside down.
"The traditional consciousness of Jeju-do, dating from hundreds of years back, states that there are three important absences here," said the deep sea free diver, Mikyoung Kang. "No theft, no gates, and no poverty. This is why we can't have a naval base here."
We sat on rough, black rocks. Our bare feet were submerged in small, clear tidepools. They looked empty at first, but Kang instructed us to wait and watch. Within minutes, the tiniest hermit crabs I'd ever seen resumed their startlingly fast, erratic sideways dance.
The pools were like miniature oceans, teeming with life. I noticed purple and pink starfish the size of my fingernails and felt giddy in a way I remembered from childhood—like the first time I caught a firefly in a jar. Thin, iridescent fish nibbled at our toes, and we laughed at the sensation.
The rocks on which we sat—and all of Jeju Island in fact—had been formed by a volcanic blast that left its once-molten signature everywhere like geological graffiti. Waves crashed tirelessly against these jagged rock piles and alien-looking craters. The island boasts more UNESCO ecological reserves than anywhere else on the planet.
Hyeopjae beach, Jeju Island
Jeju-do is known for its comparatively matriarchal ways. This place is home to 18,000 goddesses, endemic soft coral reefs, tangerine farmers and deep-sea diving women known as haenyeo—literally, "sea women."
In the mornings you can see them on the horizon, looking from far away like slick, black seals, except for the glint of goggles, a splash of diving fins. These are women, from 45 years old and up to eighty, clad in shiny black wetsuits. They bob on the sea, then disappear. Armed with only a sharp knife and net, haenyeo scour rare, soft coral reefs for delicacies like abalone, sea cucumber, seaweed, octopi, urchin and shellfish. They emerge from the depths of the ocean, clutching their finds, which they haul to shore to sell.
Kang, 42, comes from the haenyeo tradition. She described herself, modestly, as an amateur. "My mother would take me," she said. "And I would go deeper and deeper into the water. When I'd emerge, my eyes would be streaming with tears from holding my breath so tightly. It feels like your heart is about to burst when you finally come up for air."
Diving requires enormous amounts of strength and endurance. Yet many haenyeo work well into their seventies. They submerge as deep as 200 feet without oxygen tanks or respirators. Some can hold their breath for as long as two minutes at a time. (By comparison, most people can only dive 15 feet and hold their breath for 30 seconds.)
Several generations ago, almost every girl and woman on Jeju Island was a haenyeo, Kang told us. As recently as the 1970s haenyeo earnings made up 50 percent of the island’s income, according to the government’s numbers. Haenyeo women are generally the breadwinners for their families. Despite the dwindling amount of seafood due to increased pollution, said Kang, the pay is still decent. A good day’s haul can bring in the equivalent of almost $300. A bad day’s catch can be less than $50. In a region where Confucianism has left its indelible patriarchal mark everywhere, haenyeo culture has long offset conventional gender roles on the island.
“Here, the birth of a baby girl was so valued that the saying goes: ‘Have a baby girl, and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass,’” a state-sponsored tourism website boasted in English.
Accounts of haenyeo diving go back at least to the days of Japanese colonial occupation in the early 1900s. Some say that it was during this time—when men were not allowed to work—that diving for seafood became the exclusive domain of women and thus, elevated their financial and social status. Others, like Professor Chan Hoon Ko, who studies haenyeo culture and traditions at Jeju National University, say the tradition—which was once entwined with shamanic spirituality—is far older, originating in Jeju around 1700.
Even now, there are songs all haenyo seem to know, and like the sea itself, they are self-evident and seem to have no origin.
The haenyeo are well-loved and iconic on the island. They are celebrated by statues, billboards, and even dubbed by the government as an "intangible cultural heritage" and protected under UNESCO. But their numbers are dwindling.
There are an estimated 5,000 haenyeo living and working on Jeju Island today, down from 30,000 in 1950. Two-thirds of them are currently over 60 years old, and fewer than five percent are under 40, according to government figures. Once as ubiquitous as wind and rocks, the Jeju haenyeo—like rural, subsistence-based and indigenous cultures everywhere—are in danger of disappearing.
Several years ago the government opened a free, four-week diving school for young women, but more daughters are choosing to leave home and try their luck in the cities instead.Free trade agreements signed with the European Union, the US and China are all changing the island's mostly agricultural economy as South Korea pushes to develop its industrial base and commercial sectors.
Globalization has brought the tourist economy to the isolated island. Picturesque Jeju Island has long been a favorite destination for honeymooners from Seoul, who pose for photos by the island's hundred-foot-tall waterfalls and dramatic coastline.
But perhaps the greatest threat to the haenyeo way of life is the naval base and cruise ship harbor that’s being built on top of 450-year old Gangjeong village—a small farming community on the south side of the island. Ecologists say that the $970 million, 123-acre mixed-use, civilian-military base and tourism port will irreparably damage Jeju’s pristine coastline. The base’s security perimeter will block off areas where haenyeo have dived for generations. Korea’s last surviving bottlenose dolphins will likely die off. Toxic run-off and sediment stirred up by construction could destroy 98 acres of the area’s rare soft coral reef forest, which is home to nine endangered species. And that’s to say nothing of the impact of some 8,000 military personnel who would be stationed in barracks nearby.
Map of the Northeast Asia Pacific
But perhaps what rankles some of Jeju Island’s residents most is that parked among the South Korean nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and warships to be berthed at the Gangjeong naval base, there will be U.S.-owned battleships known as “Aegis destroyers.” No doubt, Gangjeong villagers say, the ships’ missiles will most likely be trained on Jeju’s powerful neighbor to the north, China. And if that alone doesn’t turn idyllic Jeju into a prime military target, they reason, what would?
It’s not the first time that Jeju Island, 46 miles wide and 26 miles long, has gotten caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s war. The tiny island is just 300 miles away from China and 500 from Japan.
In 1910, Jeju, along with the rest of Korea, was brutally annexed by Japan. Many islanders we met told us proudly that haenyeo from Jeju met Japanese occupiers brandishing sharp fishing tools. Nonetheless, the era of colonization was devastating for the islanders, with thousands of Jeju Island residents forced to labor in factories and mines. Many women were forced into prostitution as “comfort women” for the Japanese military.
It’s not the first time that Jeju Island, 46 miles wide and 26 miles long, has gotten caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s war. The tiny island is just 300 miles away from China and 500 from Japan.
After Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea was carved up by the US and Soviet Union while Korean political groups clashed and fought for control. In 1948, the US and South Korea held elections that led to the division of the peninsula into two states. Jeju Islanders took to the streets to protest. In a subsequent “anti-Red” campaign led by US-backed Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, 30,000 islanders—or almost one in five—were killed, according to Korea historian, John Merrill.
It wasn’t until 2005 that those crimes, known as the "April 3 massacre," or simply, "4.3," were acknowledged by then-president, Roh Moo-hyun. He issued a formal apology for the massacre and declared Jeju an “island of world peace.”
Peace didn’t last long.
It wasn’t so surprising. In many ways, in the Asia Pacific the Cold War never ended. Although combat in the Korean War ceased in 1953, the US never left the region. There are 28,500 US troops permanently stationed in South Korea. The US maintains at least 219 outposts on foreign soil in Asia. There are dozens in South Korea alone, as well as in Taiwan, Okinawa, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore.
In 2007, the mayor of Gangjeong village, located on the south side of Jeju Island, held an unusual general meeting. Only 87 out of 1,900 residents were present. Nearly half of the attendees were older haenyeo who hadn't attended other village meetings. Those present passed a vote to invite the South Korean military to build a new naval base in Gangjeong village.
The incident divided the tight-knit haenyo community as well as the larger village. Many accused the mayor, naval officers and government of bribing the older women.
The Gangjeong haenyeo's support for the naval base has polarized the island’s tight-knit haenyeo communities. Some haenyeo from other villages were furious with Gangjeong's haenyeo. Women who used to dine, work and raise their kids together turn away from each other now. Villagers told us stories of epic haenyeo battles following the naval base decision... hand-to-hand combat underwater waged between irate grandmothers. There are now "pro-base" and "anti-base" fishing areas.
In the months after the vote, outraged islanders ousted the old mayor and elected a new, anti-base one. They filed lawsuits and held a referendum – during which 94 percent of the villagers voted against the base. When their efforts did not stop the project, some of the island’s residents took the fight to the next level. Since 2007, elderly villagers have laid in front of bulldozers, staged hunger strikes, done jail time, and penned banners in their own blood.
Gangjeong village's mayor dragged away by police in May 2013Image courtesy of seogwipo.co.kr
South Korea is far from Oakland, California, where I lived six years ago when I first heard about the conflict in Jeju. My friend and next-door neighbor was part of an activist group of diasporic Koreans. They organized support for the opponents of the naval base, who chained themselves to construction equipment, blocked roads and went repeatedly to jail in order to try to stop the construction.
Many of these protestors were middle-aged and elderly men and women, farmers and villagers. One photo showed Gangjeong village’s mayor, a farmer in his fifties, tied to equipment with a heavy chain around his neck like a noose. His eyes were bloodshot, his expression defiant. As I clicked through the pictures of farmers being dragged away by riot police, I wondered what could possibly motivate people my parents’ ages to participate in such dramatic, physically intense, illegal civil disobedience—risking their health and freedom.What they were up against was much larger than a corrupt mayor, or Samsung, the corporation hired by the South Korean government to oversee construction of the base. It was even bigger than South Korea's government. It was geopolitics that had been set in motion decades ago and continues today.
In 2011, President Obama announced that the US would redeploy much of its military from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia Pacific in what he called a “Pacific Pivot.” By 2020, sixty percent of the US naval fleet are expected to be stationed in the area. Both North Korea and China have responded with hostility to the US military build-up. Recently, North Korea threatened to attack Guam after the US sent B52 bombers over South Korea, as part of what they said was military training. Some fear that a new arms race is brewing in the region.
Sleepy Jeju Island is not where one might expect the legacies of the Cold War to come to a head. But as tensions escalate in the Asia Pacific, the ongoing quest for demilitarization launched by the residents of Jeju pose questions that many in the world have stopped thinking about since the perceived threat of nuclear war receded with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The questions raised are the big, unanswerable kind – the kind that provoke nervous chuckling and a change of subject at dinner parties.
What does it mean to seek demilitarization? What does is look like to build an economy of peace instead of one that perpetuates war? Where do humans fit in the ecology of life on earth? How can a people respond with disarmament when all around them is war?
Construction of the naval base began in earnest last fall.
Construction of the base
And indeed, life goes on. Haenyeo continue to dive, avoiding those areas most clouded by sediment caused by dynamite and construction. Most of the Gangjeong residents who had been most active in organizing against the base are now discouraged and have stopped their daily protests at the construction site. Some are kept away by strict stay-away orders or intimidating, constant police surveillance. Others have been worn down by the numerous court dates from previous arrests and exorbitant legal fees. Taking their place are activists from Seoul and some from abroad, who continue to hold daily Catholic masses and Buddhist ceremonies in front of the gate, hoping to at least postpone the destruction of indigenous sacred sites and favored fishing spots.
In August 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Jeju Island, supported by a Middlebury College Environmental Journalism Fellowship. That's how me and my companions—translator and Korean diaspora activist, Hyejin Shim, and videographer, Diana Nucera—came to sit on volcanic rocks and tidepools with Mikoung Kang, the self-described "amateur haenyeo."
“Jeju-do’s ideology, dating from hundreds of years ago, says there are three important things,” said the haenyeo's daughter, Mikoung Kang. “No theft, no gates, no poverty. This is why we cannot have a naval base here."
Jeju Island is poised at a unique moment in history.
Right now, a short walk away from where the Jeju naval base is being built, it is still possible to use a rope to climb down a steep, rocky cliff, wade a few feet to the waterfall and drink directly from a natural spring. I did so, and it was the first time in my life not drinking water that came out of a faucet or a well. It seemed absurd to hold my battered, re-used plastic bottle under the powerful waterfall, little though it was (and watch the water fill up my bottle in seconds and then spill over, splashing into the stream), then gulp down the cold, clear liquid while standing half-submerged in the drinkable pool. I felt shocked and overcome by a sense of abundance.
I realized then that although it was an extraordinary experience for me to drink from a natural spring, this sort of trust and kinship with the land is actually our inheritance as people on earth. The fact that I had never thought twice about the desecration of all the rivers and streams I knew into toxic cesspools meant that I had been denied something that once defined us as humans and connected us to all other life. Such knowledge is rapidly being forgotten. But many Jeju Islanders know it well. Over and over, I heard from the tough, emotive, spirited people of the island, that “the land gives back what you put into it.”
This story is about them. It's about what happens after—despite all the work, hope, sacrifice, tears, and praying—you lose something most dear to you. It's about the choices people make about how to hold onto their humanity, and how to decide what kind of world we want. It's a story of our times. We grapple as a species with the unintended effects of human-induced climate change, and a devastating typhoon has now killed more than 3,000 people on another island not so far from Jeju.
But don't be fooled. This isn't just about how a naval base is going to be built in a far-away village of 2,000, or about the casualties caused by the unstoppable march of progress toward industrialization and a global economy. This isn’t a nostalgic history of the haenyeo. It's not about a few hundred farmers, or endangered dolphins and the ecology of an island off the coast of South Korea.
This is about us: our legacy as people and what we are losing.
"When I think of it now, it's like we were possessed. So yes, we did think that we could win, that we could stop the construction if we were out there," said Young Hee Jeong, a 67-year-old tangerine farmer.
When the naval base project was first announced in 2007, Jeong had been living in Gangjeong village for 17 years. She was born in the countryside outside Seoul, but it was the city that she considered home. Her parents died when she was young, and she grew up with an uncle. In high school, she had hopes of studying politics, doing business and traveling—options that, at the time, seemed not realistic for a girl of her era.
“I lived a little like a boy and had the dreams of a boy,” she said. “But then I folded my dreams away as graduated high school.”
When she married late, at age 39, “it was like the joke that I should get married became reality,” she said.
The man was someone her uncle knew. “His wife then had passed away, and he needed to re-marry,” Jeong recalled. “So my uncle told me, this person is a nice, good person. You should give this a shot. So I did just that and moved to Jeju.”
Urbanite though she was, Jeong was struck by the fresh ocean air and the splendor of Jeju's natural beauty after decades of Seoul smog. Jeong took to the farmer's life with surprising gusto. Waking at 4:30 am and working ten-hour days with a husband twenty years senior was difficult, but Jeong discovered peace and satisfaction working with the land.
"I really love being able to be this close to nature, to live in this environment," she said. "I just feel so thankful to do this, to be this connected to the land, to be doing this kind of work."
She never expected that she would become an activist.
Jeong admitted that before the Navy accounced their plans to set up camp mere feet away from her farm, she had no patience for protesters.
"When I was going to school, I would see the students going to protest, and I would be like, 'Oh God, why are you protesting? Just go study. What are you doing?'" she said, smiling. "But now look at me. I’m doing the same thing."
For ten months between May 2010 and March 2011, Jeong and other Gangjeong villagers spent hours every day—from sun-up to sunset—holding demonstrations on the street outside the naval base construction site and in the construction site itself. Some even camped at the site, in tents. Their goals were to stop or delay the construction for as long as possible while trying to fight the base in court.
"When I think of it now, it's like we were possessed. So yes, we did think that we could win, that we could stop the construction if we were out there," said Jeong.
In 2011, the villagers lost their legal battle against the Navy. The suit questioned the government's environmental assessment process, which it claimed was incomplete, disregarding endangered species in the area. It also argued that the assessment came too late—after the construction plans had already been approved. But the highest court overturned earlier decisions made by the lower courts that were favorable to the villagers. Soon after, the dynamiting began.
"And when the construction started people lost their energy. People started thinking, what’s the point," she said, and sighed.
"What I think is that even if this fight is very hard we still have to leave behind the memory, the evidence that we tried our hardest. So even if the feeling is of being an egg crashing up against a rock, well, that’s what it is..."
In more ways than one, the naval base has changed her life, and she seems to have taken it as a personal affront. From the dirt path that leads to her farm, Jeong can see the coastline and a hint of the Gangjeong Sea. Nearby was Gureombi Rock, a place considered sacred by previous generations of villagers. Countless times she used to sit on Gureombi with her best friend, Gangjeong village's most successful haenyeo. They would drink soju and watch the sunset.
Gureombi rock before construction (photo courtesy of savejejunow.org)
Now, instead of the ocean, she sees a long, white fence. Beyond that, there's the construction equipment, cranes and ships where the naval base and tourist port is being built. Gureombi Rock was blasted and paved over last year. Immediately afterward, dirt, cement, and salt water blew into her farm, killing some of her plants and cutting into her sales. And her best friend—who, along with the other haenyeo in the village, supports the naval base coming in—has become like a stranger.
"When I look at the construction site, the gates of the naval base, I feel like I'm going to go crazy, even just from looking at it," Jeong said, taking a deep breath. "How are we supposed to live our lives with soldiers around? A naval base can't be reversed. The sea gets polluted, and how do you turn that back around? I’m sure that you’ve seen that the coral, the red-footed crabs, they’ve all died away."
"If I think about it on a smaller scale, then my thoughts are like this: Gureombi, where the base is being built right now…" she said. "I used to go out and lie on the warm rocks when my back would ache, and I would feel better. I would rest, find shells, catch seafood and play there."
And when I think about it on a larger scale: War can come to Gangjeong. Why do we need to build a naval base here? Why do we have to fight with China? Why does Jeju have to be caught in the middle? And I think: At any cost, this can’t be it. We have to protect this place and we have to pass it on to the coming generations."
Jeong's orientation seemed to be "ride or die." In a crowd, she's the one shouting, coordinating, gesturing and organizing. She's often flanked by companions—middle-aged and elderly women. Their faces are shielded from the hot sun by outrageous, flower-print bonnets or visors so popular in Asia. She’s a little shorter than five feet tall, with silver hair in a pixie cut.
"I'd go out and kind of argue, or pick fights with government or navy official [at the demonstrations], so that's how I got into the role of being the chairwoman," she said, referring to her position within the Gangjeong village association that opposes the naval base.
Jeong (in the red hat) with fellow protesters
In the evenings she’s likely sitting cross-legged on the ground, enthusiastically downing glass after glass of soju in a circle of friends. Her straight eyebrows pitch and soar dramatically with her laughter, which begins with an alarming “Aaaaaah!” Many times with her in the back seat of my rental car I nearly drove into the village’s ubiquitous rock walls, until I became acclimated to her laugh.
“Aaaaah, filmmaker!” she’d exclaim when we hit a speedbump. “Slow down!”
It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a filmmaker; it was what she called me.
For the last six years, Jeong's life has been utterly consumed by her efforts to stop the base from being built. There were meetings, press events, organizing an annual peace march around the island, taking trips to the Korean peninsula, and endless protests. She's been arrested for demonstrating. Twice, she shaved her hair off in a gesture of sacrifice and protest. Then, when construction began in 2011, things only got more intense.
"We would just open our eyes and wake up, without even eating, and just rush over to the village town hall," she recalled.
Her life was so interrupted that she hired farmhands to help her tend to her greenhouses of tangerine trees.
"But then I would drag them to the protests as well," she said, laughing.
In the beginning, Jeong said, the villagers believed that as long as they behaved peacefully, they would not be attacked by the police and would be treated respectfully. After all, many of the protesters were elders. But despite the physically non-threatening nature of many of the village protests (repeated bows common to Buddhist rituals and non-violent civil disobedience acts like lying down at the construction site), the police responded with aggression, she said.
"The fight here has really looked like a struggle of the body," Jeong said. "Blocking construction trucks, getting run over, getting injured, and having hundreds upon hundreds of police come. Many of the police were trained, know tae kwon do. Us—we don't know how to fight like that. And these young people, pushing or dragging or hitting these elders who come from a farming background, who are living in a very rural small town, it's like amateurs versus pros."
Jeong herself had suffered a bruised rib from confrontations with the police at a protest.
"That was very painful," she remembered, wincing.
"But now that the construction has started, I feel like even that wasn’t enough," she said. "Could we have stopped it if we had just fought harder, going until we were bleeding, seriously injured, or going to prison? I just think regretfully, 'Why didn’t we give it our all?'”
Protesting is an exhausting activity. Loitering on the side of a road, exposed to the elements, being stared at by passers-by who whiz by in cars, standing or squatting awkwardly... it gets old after many hours. Adrenaline keeps you alert and edgy. All your senses are heightened. It's not so different than how you might feel going to into a "real" battle. There are rows of police that were brought over from the peninsula. They're different than the village cops, whom you knew as children. These ones look antsy and occasionally bark orders. Sometimes they rush the crowd unexpectedly, pushing and shoving, and grab one person that they take away to jail.
A cement mixer drives past, into the construction site, splashing rain from the road onto you. Everyone's shouting, and emotional, and all the feelings you've grappled with—helplessness, confusion, sadness, anger, fear—overwhelm you as you stare into the icy expression of the officer in front of you.
And despite the unpleasantness, you go back, again and again. There's the thrill of small victories—when the sit-in succeeds in stopping construction for an afternoon, or a week. There's satisfaction when a favorable article is written about the campaign. There is the sudden, forged closeness and comraderie shared by those who've suffered and stood together for a common cause. There's the astonishment and sense of incredulous power to realize that you, and others as small as yourself, can stand up against machinations so much larger than and utterly indifferent to you, and force it into a grinding halt. In these moments, you feel invincible, buoyed by purpose, destined for victory.
And when defeat happens instead, it is absolutely shattering.
Construction of the base
One night, Hyejin, my translator, received a call from Jeong at 9pm.
“Where are you?” Jeong asked.
Hyejin told her we were at our hostel, and Jeong said, “I’m coming over right now. I'll bring a watermelon and some wine.”
She asked, almost as an afterthought: “Is two bottles enough?”
Hyejin's eyes widened. I groaned. It was during the week-long peace march, when anti-base villagers and supporters from the peninsula circumnavigated the island to spread the word of the ongoing fight against the naval base in Gangjeong. The marchers walked something like 15 miles a day. We hadn't even gone on the march, and we were exhausted. How could Jeong still be up? we marveled. She had worked in the pre-dawn hours on the farm, then she had gone on the march.
"What a beast," Hyejin said with admiration.
We tried to make our grimy hostel room seem presentable. There was no furniture in the rooms. What could we do? We prepared to cut some watermelon.
Soon after, Jeong arrived with another women who was introduced as Ara’s mom. (We did not know Ara.) Jeong wore her customary loose-fitting, short-sleeved brown print shirt and pants. Ara’s mom donned a sporty-looking collared top with short sleeves and a neon zipper. The two women disdainfully pushed away the stack of pillows I offered. They sat on the dirty wood paneled floor.
Ara's mom (in pink) at a naval base protestcourtesy of savejejunow.org
Jeong gossiped freely in Korean, knowing that much of what she said, in her thick, islander's accent, went over even Hyejin's head. Jeong gestured dramatically and made clownish faces. She slammed her palm on the floor for emphasis. Her voice soared; she made guttural throat noises as punctuation. Her companion, notably more reserved, watched her steadily and occasionally replied.
Jeong talked about how before this march, she had been so tired and depressed that she fell ill. She didn’t want to be a part of the struggle anymore, she said. They had lost. She told her husband she wanted to leave the village. He said, “Then go.”
“Does this mean you want a divorce?” she had asked him, stunned.
“You decide,” he said. “You’ve been doing this for seven years now. What have you learned? You’ve traveled the world for this struggle, now you want to stop? How can you do that?”
Jeong paused her story for her friend to respond.
“Your brain hates it, but then your body goes back,” Ara's mother said.
“What am I supposed to think?” Jeong asked. “Other husbands might want me to stay home to take care of them. This one wants me to go back out. Every time I say I want to give up, he does something to push me back out.”
So she keeps going back.
“I hate it, and then I love it,” she said.
Earlier this week she didn’t want to go on the march, Jeong confided to Ara's mom. She had to spray her crops. She had relatives from Seoul staying in town. She was wiped. But someone Jeong ran into the other day asked her why she hadn’t been marching.
So she went.
The base, and fighting against it, has taken a toll on Jeong over the years.
"My lifestyle's a mess," she said, sighing. "Everything's changing. The patterns I used to work in are broken."
She suffers from dizzy spells, fatigue and moments of disorientation. She's sure it is stress related. But the worst thing, she said, has been losing her best friend over the naval base.
Sociable as she seems, Jeong said she made only one close friend during her 23 years in Gangjeong village. That woman, a haenyeo deep-sea diver, became her best friend. Haenyeo organize themselves into three orders, based on their level of skill. Jeong’s friend was Gangjeong village’s number one haenyeo.
“She has a very strong personality,” Jeong said. “She’s like a man on the outside, but inside she is still very much a woman. I was closer with her than my husband; I shared more secrets with her than my husband.”
"We had very beautiful memories together," Jeong said. "I don’t hate her because she brought the base here, but we just can’t be close anymore. When I see her, I think of the haenyeo and the navy; the close relationship between the two. I feel such deep resentment and sorrow."
In the past, when I would fight with my husband, whenever I was having a very hard time, this is the friend that I would call. This is the friend who would come, barefoot, chasing after me to find me. Whenever I think about all of this, I feel so much loss and anger."
After the meeting to bring in the naval base, and after the meeting when the haenyeo ran away with the village ballot box, Jeong and her best friend grew apart. They never had a falling-out. There was never an argument, or yelling.
Jeong and her husband
There are still days, Jeong said, when, while working by herself on the farm, she finds herself taking out her phone.
"You know, it shouldn't be like this," she would think. "Not her. I shouldn't be angry with her. I have to talk to her again."
She begins dialing the familiar number, then stops.
"It’s really painful," Jeong said, tears welling in her eyes. "I think back and regret how this turned out, and wonder: Were there things I could have done differently?"
Once, years ago, Jeong approached her friend.
“Hey," she said. "We can do this. If you just try to rally the haenyeo, then I will support you from behind. We could turn this whole thing around.”
Her friend was silent.
And Jeong, her heart aching, turned away.
We tracked down Jeong's best friend by going to the village haenyeo restaurant. She declined to speak to us. So did all the rest of the haenyeo in Gangjeong.
All of them were polite, even the number one haenyeo, who warned us: "I'm going to hang up now."
"I want your hypocrisy and blood" by Goh Gil-chun
The South Korean government claims it needs a Jeju base in order to protect its ocean trade routes against the threat of piracy (all South Korean freighters pass by Jeju). It also says the base is necessary in order to mobilize the nation's military power if China seizes nearby Ieodo (or Socotra) Rock—a submerged rock in a disputed, stateless territory claimed both by China and South Korea. Ieodo figures prominently in South Korean mythology; One famous haenyeo song mourns the loss of a loved one who gets blown by a storm to Ieodo while fishing. The area around Ieodo is thought to have significant natural gas and oil deposits. Decades of US intervention has blurred lines and rouses suspicions for the real motives behind building a Jeju base. After all, the border that defines South Korea was itself a construct of the US conflicts with other superpowers. And it's well-known in the region that under the US - Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, the US maintains operational command of all South Korean troops during wartime.
US bases worldwide (nobases.org)
In 2012, a National Assembly member leaked a construction plan published by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense in 2010 that showed the Jeju base's berths were being built at sizes scaled to accommodate US nuclear aircraft carriers. The government has maintained that the harbor was designed to fit two 150,000-ton cruise ships.
That's enough to make a base on Jeju Island a target for China, said Taeho Lee, Secretary General of Seoul-based NGO, People's Solidarity for a Participatory Democracy (PSPD). It's been a challenge for the South Korean government to balance its relationship with China—it's most significant trading partner—with its reliance on the US for military protection against North Korea.
Lee tracks trends in US foreign policy and follows the South Korean military budget closely. He said that a military base on Jeju has been a long time coming.
"There was a air force and naval base in Jeju during Japanese colonization," he said. "So there's been an argument raised repeatedly over the years that we need military bases there again. It was always part of a mid-term or long-term plan."
During occupation, the Japanese launched planes from its Jeju base to attack China. After independence, the land which had been seized to build that base was never returned to the farmers from whom it was taken. It become property of the South Korean air force instead. That land is in Hwasun, a village fifteen minutes by car from Gangjeong. Farmers currently rent the land from the government.
Japanese bombers like these ones were stationed at the Jeju base
During the 1990s, the PSPD helped Hwasun villagers successfully fight off government plans to re-establish an air force base there.
"That anti-base movement was more powerful and aggressive than the one today," Lee said. "Jeju Islanders had particular feelings and experiences against air forces due to US air raids during World War II."
But, he said, ultimately Hwasun villagers prevented the air force base from being built because back then, the idea for a Jeju base was a government pipedream.
"They had no budget," he said. "It was not a real proposal."
Behind the scenes of South Korea's governmental deliberations, it's always been the US calling the shots, Lee said. Not building a South Korean air force base on Jeju during the 1990s dovetailed with US interests.
At that time they wanted South Korea to build its land armies' capacities on the peninsula and focus on the border between North and South Korea.
But things changed after September 11, 2001, Lee said. With the "War on Terror," the US wanted to heighten its ocean presence. It's new strategy was to police the sea, especially the Malacca Strait and other waterways by China and Taiwan. But, with troops waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military was also spread thin. It wanted to return the responsibility for and costs of security to its regional allies.
"Since then, the US Pacific Command has continuously requested for the South Korean government to cooperate in ocean security," Lee said.
The US was moving toward a military strategy that involved less use of air force bases and land armies, which tended to draw more opposition from populations and countries being occupied.
It was prioritizing "partnerships" and making use of agreements like the US - ROK Mutual Defense Treaty in order to leave "fewer footprints."
That was the context when in 2002, the South Korean Navy came to Hwasun to propose that village as the site for its new base. This time, there was a budget.
Villagers from Wimi (near Gangjeong and Hwasun) shave their heads to protest the naval base in 2007
Hwasun resident, Ja Hu Yi, took an active role fighting against the naval base coming to his town. He recalled that as soon as the Navy hung public notices in Hwasun announcing its intentions, villagers called a meeting. Many people were alarmed at the prospect of their way of life changing. Between 2002 and 2007—until Gangjeong was selected as the site for the naval base—Hwasun villagers held large public meetings, researched the potential impacts of a base and changed the minds of those who initially approved the project. The haenyeo of Hwasun took an especially hard line against the government project.
“We alerted the media and let them know that we were opposed to the naval base,” Yi said. “And we also went to the National Defense Department. And we went to the Navy, the government and spoke to the representatives, saying that we were not going to have this base. As for Gangjeong village, [the government] went about it differently, where instead they gathered the people who were pro-base first. So they took away the opportunity for people to be against the base.”
In the last decade, "strategic partnerships" became a key phrase that surfaced both in US and South Korean political speeches and military literature.
One report written by the US Congress' advisory arm in 2008 detailed how these might work.
"Such cooperation [with key regional states] could better position the United States and like-minded countries to look after their shared interests through a focus on capacity building while not being formalized in a way that such cooperation appears to be aimed at containing China," the report stated.
In 2010, the US, Japan and South Korea started staging trilateral military drills in the ocean south of Jeju Island. These drills included helicopters as well as US nuclear aircraft carriers, and were said to be "search and rescue" training for natural disasters like typhoons.
Lee raised his eyebrows.
"There is no reason for a search and rescue plan to involve nuclear aircraft carriers," he said.
Soon after one such drill, the South Korean Minister for National Defense presented a "mid- to long-term" plan to the National Assembly that argued for re-establishing an air force base on the southern part of Jeju Island on the grounds that it would be useful for humanitarian and relief efforts. Because of similar, recurring conversations within the government, some Jeju activists worry that once the Gangjeong base is built, an air force in Hwasun will be next.
In 2011, after President Obama formalized the US' "pivot" to East Asia, then-US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared that the US was entering its "Pacific Century." In an article for Foreign Policy, she wrote, "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action."
The US has made good on that vision and has been bulking up "defensive" missiles in the region, supposedly in response to the North Korean nuclear threat. Although South Korea has continued to refuse to deploy US-led missile systems known as the "ring around China," it has in recent years begun to develop its own missile system, which—again, during wartime—would be intergrated with the US' system and operated by the US.
"The focus of our rhetoric is North Korea," Steven Hildreth, a missile-defense expert with the Congressional Research Service, told the Wall Street Journal. "The reality is that we're also looking longer term at the elephant in the room, which is China."
"Based on this background we can say that the Jeju naval base will be used as a post for joint military operations between Japan, US and South Korea to monitor China," said Lee.
From a vantage point looking down from above, Jeju Island and Gangjeong village, the smallest of players, never stood a chance.
“How did you get into politics?” I asked Gangjeong village mayor, Dong Kyun Kang. It was hot, and the sliced watermelon we’d been taught to offer to all our guests was collecting flies on the kitchen table.
Mayor Kang at a demo, August 2013
“I don’t do politics,” he replied, a bit sharply. “I defend Gangjeong against state power. It’s different.”
Before he was the mayor of Gangjeong, Kang—like most of the villagers we met—worked for himself, growing tangerines. He had trained for a political career in college but decided to leave and become a farmer instead.
"My personality is a little like fire," Kang said. "So I didn't want to work under someone else. If I work in the government then I have to take orders from someone. But with the land, the amount of work that I put into the land, the land responds with the same back. I love this land, nature, this environment. That's why I'm a farmer."
These days, it's his wife who does the farming. Kang's days are spent hunched over his computer, zipping around on his moped, talking to the press, attending court dates for his many protest-related charges, and going to meetings. Since 2007, he said, he's visited government offices and the National Assembly around 150 times. He's served over three months in jail time for civil disobedience arrests. He said he hasn't slept more than five hours any night.
"All day I think about the naval base, how we're going to kick them out," he said.
Kang was the person I had seen in the photos who had chained himself to the protest tent at the construction site. I’d also seen photos of him lying in the road, and being hauled to jail by police, his face twisted in what looked like agony.
"You know, my IQ isn't that great," he said when I asked him what motivated him to take part in those civil disobedience actions. "I'm a very simple man. I wanted to show the villagers with my actions. We want to show our urgency."
In August when I met up with him, he looked tired and was coming down with a cold. He wore a dark red polo shirt. A not-matching crimson towel hung over one shoulder. This he used to mop up the sweat that welled up on his brow every few minutes. Despite the humble attire and what appeared to be long-term exhaustion, Kang had charisma. He was tall, straight-backed, with crinkly eyes and deep dimples that appeared when he grinned. When he laughed, a decade of his 56 years melted away.
"What we have is more than money," Kang said emphatically. "It's the ways that we live, people in harmony with one another. Real peace happens when you don't have to talk about peace. As I understand it, Gangjeong villagers have always lived that way."
However, the governor, Minister of National Defense, the Navy and the island government are coming into our village and destroying our community. This is why all I can do is fight. When I talk, they never hear my voice. So I can only protect the village with my body."
When Kang was first voted in as mayor, he went about learning everything he would have to know in order to deal with the naval base.
“In the beginning I did not know how to fight,” he said.
Kang, who was born and bred in the village, didn’t know what it would mean to live near a military base. He didn’t know how to use computers, or lobby National Assembly members. So he interviewed residents who lived near other military bases in Korea. He taught himself how to use email and listserves. He made appointments with politicians and spent the days before his meetings preparing for them.
That was back in 2007, when Kang, Jeong and everyone else opposed to the base were certain they would stop it.
Traditional village life is something most people I know—who grew up in huge, anonymous modern cities or alienated suburbs—have never experienced and have difficulty imagining. In Gangjeong village, with a population of less than 2,000, everyone knows everyone else’s business. Most people have grown up together and know each other’s extended families. Mayor Kang and former Mayor Yoon went to school together for most of their lives. Accountability to one’s neighbor is taken for granted. Any misdeed is immediately identified, corrected if possible, and the responsible parties are collectively embarrassed or shunned accordingly. Such a culture makes the transgression of a few dozen people acting against a larger community all the more shocking, and conflicts and divisions sting of personal betrayal.
On April 26, 2007, a general village meeting was called by then-mayor, Tae Jung Yoon. Unlike other general meetings that discussed the more mundane of village matters (road repairs, holiday festivities, permits) this one was not announced over the loudspeaker a week beforehand. There was a public notice posted only three days before the meeting date, Mayor Kang recalled, and it had said, rather obliquely, that the agenda was to discuss "matters related to a naval base.”
“But in the actual meeting they approved the installation of the naval base,” Kang said.
The construction site
Gangjeong village meeting minutes show that only 87 of the 2,000 villagers were present at the start of the meeting, but more came as it progressed. By the end, there were 120 people. In particular, members from Ochongae—the haenyeo and fishermen’s association—were there in force, comprising 40 out of the total participants.
At the table, Mayor Kang flipped through the minutes, his brow furrowed. “Most of these people never attended meetings before or after this one,” he said. “That means they joined this one for another reason.”
During the meeting, then-mayor Yoon suggested that the participants pass a vote to approve the Ministry of Defense build a new naval base and tourist port in the village. Yoon had been talking to them already, he said.
The meeting notes show that one person objected, saying that more time was needed to deliberate.
“We don’t have time to discuss this,” Yoon replied. He suggested that everyone in the room show their approval by clapping their hands, rather than by voting the usual way.
“If you allow me to handle these things, then I will move forward and call in an expert to discuss this matter further. If you'll approve, let’s start with the clapping our hands,” Yoon said.
The same person who had objected earlier spoke up again: “This is not an agenda that we can make a decision on by clapping our hands.”
“Just trust me and let me handle this," Yoon said then. "I will do my best."
“How are you going to do your best? If something goes wrong, if something bad happens, how are you going to handle this?” the dissenter asked.
“We have to make a decision now,” Yoon repeated several times.
Construction at sea
Later, Yoon told me that the decision to make the controversial decision by applauding was proposed by the villagers in attendance at the meeting.
“It was the villagers who said we should do that,” he insisted. “It’s not like I can pass that decision by myself. The villagers wanted to vote that way. Was there anyone who had an issue with this? Since there wasn’t, that’s why they voted by clapping.”
Yoon emphasized to me that nothing at the meeting was illegal. The minimum number of people needed to have a vote—fifty-one— was met and exceeded.
That meeting lasted one hour and twenty minutes.
Mayor Kang shook his head dubiously.
“Usually general meetings—to deal with all the agenda items—take two or three hours,” he said. “That’s normal. A national project which is going to shake up all of the village takes only one hour and twenty minutes?”
Graffiti on the naval base wall
Back in April 2007, Yoon wasted no time. The day after the unusual convening, he met with Jeju Island governor and told him that the residents of Gangjeong wished to invite the Navy to build the base in their village. In turn, the island governor passed on the news to the federal government, Navy and Ministry of National Defense. By May 11, the federal government announced its plans to move forward with building its new Jeju base in Gangjeong village.
Stunned Gangjeong residents met days later. Kang was among the sixteen who formed a committee to oppose the naval base. Most of the villagers still hadn’t realized what had happened.
“Whatever way we looked at it it was wrong,” Kang said. “And so we—this committee that we created—tried to hold the mayor accountable in some sense.”
The committee requested a new general meeting to discuss the issue. They set a date: June 19. During that meeting, which was well attended, villagers formally voted to support or oppose the base. In the middle of the meeting, Yoon and a group of haenyeo interrupted the vote, grabbed the ballot box and left.
“We already had a general meeting and voted,” the haenyeo declared.
The dramatic intervention led to speculation and mistrust. Many accused the haenyeo of taking bribes from the Navy or government and being in cahoots with Yoon. They couldn't understand why else would these women—who, as seafood divers, had more to lose than anyone else if the base polluted the area—would so strongly support a naval base in the village.
In reality, the 160 members of Ochongae, the association of fishermen and haenyeo of the village, received what seemed like a nominal sum from the government as compensation for their fishing rights, which would be disturbed by the base. Mayor Kang said that he once saw a receipt showing that the lump sum paid to Ochongae was something around $30,000 US, which would come to less than $200 US per person. The village association had never been given a copy of the receipt, he said.
One hundred and sixty people should not be able to speak for a village of 1,900, Kang said.
"More importantly, we do not want the compensation. The most important thing is to save the land that our ancestors have left for us and our descendants to receive. It is our responsibility to take care of this land."
Shortly after the second meeting, Kang’s group demanded that Yoon step down, and with the backing of most of the villagers, they ousted him on August 10. Kang was voted in as the new mayor.
The committee and village decided to hold a third general meeting to hold a real vote on the naval base, on August 20.
“Out of the 2,000 some villagers there are about 1,400 that can actually vote because they are of age,” Mayor Kang explained. “And if you take out the people who live outside of the village, but sometimes participate in Gangjeong affairs, it’s about 1,100 people. And out of that 1,100 people, about 750 voted. And of that, there were 680 people who voted against the base.”
Thirty-six people approved the base at that time. Nine filled out the form incorrectly, according to Kang. Based on those numbers, he concluded, 94 percent of the village were anti-base in August 2007.
But construction plans for the base moved forward.
Civilian-Military Complex Port for Tour Beauty
Not everyone opposes the base.
Hee Sang Kang (no relation to Mayor Kang or Mikyoung Kang) is an outspoken member of a village committee that supports the naval base and tourist port coming to town. A 51-year old shopkeeper who grows tangerines and owns the "pro-base" convenience store in town, Kang grew up in Gangjeong and moved to Seoul for 12 years.
"Of course, while we may lose some things, I think we will gain more," Kang said as we drank bottled corn tea in his store.
"For the farming and land that we lose, we will become a commercial district. We will have shopping districts. We will have shopping districts, which will bring in many more people into our village. So things like Gangjeong Elementary School—next year, we only have six students enrolling. Our school is very stagnant. With the naval base and more people coming in, we'd have more students attending the school, which would revive it."
Kang, a quiet-seeming man with a solemn face, guffawed when I asked if he—as a farmer—was concerned about possible environmental contamination from the base.
"It's very laughable," he said. "There is no relation between tangerine farming and the naval base. In fact, if it becomes a commercial district then we can sell our crops there. It's going to be a hub of tourism as well, and will include cruise ships. When tourists come to our village on cruises, then they will buy the crops and other goods from the village. People will have more avenues to sell their crops."
He was equally disbelieving that the base or cruise ship traffic could harm the ocean ecology.
"The coral reefs are like grass," he said. "So some areas need to be protected, like Hwasun, or different places in Seogwipo. But in Gangjeong it's not like that; it's very common. So even if you get rid of one area, it's just going to keep growing."
Kang said that he had lost money in sales during the past years, as villagers who oppose the base have boycotted his store. But he's not worried, he said. "I'm sure that when the naval base is built there wil be many more people, so I will be able to make back what I lost. And in terms of Gangjeong village, conflicts are resolved quickly. Before the base there were disagreements: for example, fighting among the village council. And they were resolved. I feel like after the base is built, it will return to normal."
A man fishes at the construction site
We met former mayor, Tae Jung Yoon, 59, at a multi-story house, steps away from the Gangjeong coastline. From the dining table in the front room, one had a direct view of the calm, turquoise, summer sea. When construction of the naval base is complete, that view will likely change.
"I am the person responsible for bringing the navy in and keeping this going for seven years," Yoon declared.
Yoon was upset that we had talked to Mayor Kang and Hee Sang Kang, the shopkeeper, first.
"You should be interviewing me, not those others," he said. "From start to finish, I'm the one who pushed this forward."
He looked agitated as he talked about what he said was unfavorable media coverage of his role bringing in the naval base and tourist port.
“It will be a lot of help,” Yoon told us. “Our region, the roads and such are very small. The navy base will not be all military facilities for the mainland soldiers. But half, the soldiers will use, and half, we, together, with the villagers, will create for civilian use. That will be of much help to the village, of course, because it will create more jobs.”
The naval base gate
Yoon said that he sees himself as a leader, bringing tourism, cruise ships and government money to the village. The project has already been lucrative for him. He runs a minbak, or bed-and-breakfast of sorts, which is used by those constructing the base. Although he was circumspect with us about his future plans, the village buzzed with rumors about his impending enterprises: a gourmet restaurant, more minbaks, government contracts.
He said that bringing in the naval base will allow Gangjeong village to develop economically and transition away from a reliance on agriculture. South Korea’s agricultural sectors and small businesses are reeling from two different free trade agreements signed with the European Union and the US. A third free trade agreement with China is pending. The impacts of these are already being felt in the village. Local varieties of tangerines are at this point more expensive to buy at village farm stands than tangerines shipped from China.
“Whether our village is developed or not, our country is becoming a developed nation. Its primary industries, such as farming and fishing, are impacted by free trade agreements with the USA and China. As there are more imports coming to Korea, something has to change in the region,” he said.
“Because of those factors, attracting the navy help the village to progress. The people who oppose the base do so because they don’t know that the base won’t just benefit us, but the entire region.”
The legacy Yoon wanted to leave behind, he said, was the naval base "without any problems." He wanted to show the "anti's," as he called the villagers who opposed the base, that they had been wrong.
"I don’t know if you’ve been to Hawaii or San Diego, but go see those places, and go to Japan, too," he said. "There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s not like bombs are exploding. As time passes, the people will come to know this, too."
At the time, Yoon was embroiled in two battles with the anti's. The Navy intended to build housing for military personnel in Gangjeong, but so far local opposition has kept the plan at bay.
"But the anti’s were so opposed to it that now other places are trying to bring them to their villages for housing," Yoon said heatedly. "The navy is struggling to build those apartments here, but still I want them to build it all in Gangjeong. Those apartments have to come in."
Yoon has also accused Mayor Kang of money laundering. In a statement he wrote for the state prosecutor, Yoon said Kang was fundraising on behalf of the village and using this money for his personal gain. Yoon alleged that Kang opened a bank account under his wife's name, and that is where some of the laundered money is kept.
When I asked Mayor Kang about the case, he said, "If they check the bank, they will clearly see that is not true."
According to Kang, the trial, which is ongoing, brought to light a law that he had never heard about before. The law required that all organizations— including NGOs and citizen groups—register donations they receive that exceed $1,000 US. Kang said that no one in Gangjeong had heard of the law, and no one he knew had heard of it being enforced before.
"This is why the case continues," he said.
Kang shook his head. "Everything Yoon accuses me of, he himself has done."
The first year that Dong Kyun Kang became mayor of Gangjeong village, his mother worried relentlessly. Kang's mother had survived the April 3, 1948 massacre. She lived through the murder and loss of 30,000 people from her small island community.
Jeju prisoners await death; May 1948
Their lives had been treated as disposable by the new military dictatorship and by the US, which sponsored the killing, all because the victims had been labeled as "pro-North" and "communists." It didn't matter that many were not. They had stood up to the federal government, and so they were killed.
In the beginning, Kang often stayed at the tiny village association office until midnight or later, squinting at the large-screen computer. Kang's mother, well aware that ex-Mayor Yoon and supporters of the naval base were characterizing their opposition as outsiders and pro-North communists, fretted. Until Kang returned home, his mother would periodically check the entryway of their house for the sight of his shoes. Once she saw Kang's shoes she knew he was home and would finally be able to go to sleep.
The entire Korean peninsula is about half the size of the state of California, and partition split the country less than four generations ago. Before that, the memory of Japanese colonization was still a fresh wound. For at least a century, every generation's elders carried a different historical, collective trauma related to subjugation, war, forced migration or separation, and massacre.
Kang's mother wanted to know whether or not she could support her son's latest endeavors, since she already feared for his life. Without telling him, she took a trip to up north to the peninsula. She went to Busan. She observed the town and talked to people there who lived near the military base about what it was like.
When she returned, she gave her son her blessing.
One notable and sometimes surprising feature of the Gangjeong campaign against the base has been its internationalism.
"In the beginning," Jeong said, "We would go and rally all the time, demonstrating and doing our protests, in order to stop the base. But the navy and the government just kept pushing forward. We realized that we couldn’t do it on our own because it was such a large issue—we needed to bring in support from other people across the world."
So they did. Activists, many from different faiths—Catholic, Buddhist, some non-demoninational—arrived to keep a constant presence at the gate to the construction site, cook collective meals, publish a multi-lingual website and newsletter, provide support for the villagers' court dates and coordinate other activists coming in to help.
Some monitored the construction and, risking arrest, went out to sea in kayaks to keep an eye on ongoing environmental violations. One day while we were there, activist observers found and reported one such violation: the construction crew was supposed to replace damaged netting that kept silt from crushing or contaminating the soft coral reefs directly adjacent to the site. Their report halted construction for a day.
Over the years, the villagers, with help from allies on the peninsula and abroad, connected their own struggle with similar campaigns in places like Taiwan, Hawaii, East Timor, Okinawa, and Guam.
As the chairwoman of the Gangjeong villager's committee to stop the naval base, Jeong has traveled to Japan and the US to give presentations to Korean American community organizers, environmentalists and anti-militarism activists. She visited Hawaii to meet residents who fought against US Navy base contamination there. She met Korean diaspora activists in New York City and California.
Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans host Jeong
It was in Oakland that I first met her, in May 2013, at an event where she had spoken about Gangjeong's fight against the naval base. The room was full of mostly Asian American activists who were brainstorming ways to take the campaign to the next level. Consumer boycotts? Informational ad campaigns?
Jeong wasn't paying attention to them. She was looking at a print-out photo of a package of dried tangerines sold by Trader Joe's. Someone had brought it to inspire ideas. "Crispy Jeju Mandarin Orange Slices," the package label read.
Jeong made a face. "Why would anyone dry these?" she asked no one in particular.
Mayor Kang, too, has done his share of traveling for the cause. For a month in fall of 2012, Kang marched through the South Korean peninsula with other activists and social movement groups, including a labor union of laid-off auto workers, and residents who had been displaced by a different military project on the peninsula.
2012 march across the Korean peninsula for life and peace (Woo-ki Lee)
"As we marched through the country, we saw how in every region, there wasn't a single place that wasn't struggling," Kang said, recalling his trek. "Across the nation, there are all these little places that are being really impacted. Even if you raise awareness around one issue, the government won’t pay attention at all. Because of that, we have to connect our struggles and be in solidarity. We have to take the strength of all the people who are weak and in pain, and bring it all together."
In June 2013, the mayor flew to Berkeley, California, for a conference and teach-in called Moana Nui, which means "Pacific Ocean" in Maori. The event billed itself as a convening for "Peoples of the Pacific Confronting Globalization, Militarism, Resource Theft and America's 'Pacific Pivot.'"
In Berkeley Kang met and spoke to a room of activists and scholars from 20 different countries, including other indigenous and small island peoples of the Pacific.
Hawaiian activist and conference organizer, Koohan Paik, said that the gathering aimed to impart "a trans-Pacific feeling of strength and solidarity, rather than the one prevailing from the last century: If you're an island, you're insignificant."
"Samoan author Epeli Hau'ofa wrote Our Sea of Islands in 1993, comparing the ancient Polynesian perception of being an island to the continental perception of being an island," Paik said. "For ancient navigators, the ocean connected all these communities, as opposed to the continental perception—which is that it separates islands into little dots."
"The islands of Asia—Taiwan, the Philippines, Okinawa, Korea—and the west coast of the Americas, we are connected by these traditions. The Pacific Command of the US military is centered right here in Hawaii," she said. "The Pacific Ocean is the center of US military power, not the Pentagon. Because it takes up half of the globe.
This is a huge region, where all the wealth and action is. Many of these places are colonies of other places. But fundamentally, it's a cultural bloc."
Over time, Moana Nui organizers hope to rebuild and re-create an island-centric, trans-Pacific culture and act together, from a place of power. It's like the Pacific Pivot, perhaps, but inside out and from below.
On our last night in Gangjeong, the village committee to stop the base had a big meeting to evaluate how the annual "march for peace" around the island had gone. Afterward there was a free celebratory meal at the village dining hall: fried pork belly to wrap in sharp, fragrant perilla leaves; multiple forms of kimchi; sticky, white rice and sliced, fried beef. A hundred or so people sat at the long, cafeteria style tables, talking and drinking beer, yogurt wine, and rice wine. A week or two had passed since the march had ended, and as expected, there followed a collective crash of spirits when the full, scheduled days of marching and performances were over, and the supporters from the peninsula and abroad all packed up and left. But tonight, everyone seemed cheery.
Jeong expertly hustled us choice cuts of beef and 40-ounce containers of beer. Farmers we hadn't met before, emboldened by alcohol and the festive atmosphere, asked us about our tattoos. The mayor introduced us to his wife, a delicately built, commanding looking woman who made it clear that she was running the kitchen while everyone else was sitting around.
Eventually, we all ended up in the parking lot outside. Elders in Jeju are not afraid of sitting on the ground. Women and men of all ages plop down without a moment's hesitation and sit, cross-legged. Inevitably, more beers and bottles of soju arrived, along with slices of watermelon, and plates of cool, uncooked, sliced tofu, accompanied by heaping piles of kimchi.
The mayor, a Gangjeong farmer, and Jeong
The mayor, a farmer we hadn't met before, and Mi Ryang, a villager in her 40s and one of the few locals who still went out to protest every day, spent a good five minutes showing off to us how they could open beer bottles using almost any blunt object. It was all in the angle of the wrist, they claimed.
"See?" the mayor gloated. He had just used one beer bottle to open another.
"It's not about strength, see?" the other farmer said. "It's about smarts."
Mi Ryang smirked from her horizontal position on the pavement. She was already drunk and had been throwing shade our way all evening, in a tough-love kind of way.
Earlier, she had approached me and Hyejin, grumbling.
"So you're leaving now?" she asked gruffly.
We said yes, our flight leaves tomorrow.
She glared at us hard.
"Who gave you permission to come here?" she demanded. "And who said you get to leave?"
Her face cracked into a wide grin.
Now, Mi Ryang was singing something with her eyes closed. Jeong and Mayor Kang were talking about the march.
"Are you going to go again next year?" Jeong asked him. She sighed. What if the base was already built then?
"Even if I was the only person marching," Kang replied, "I would still go."
Jeong stared at him for a moment. "You would," she said finally, and laughed.
As always, there are far too many people to thank. But here is an incomplete list.
Hyejin Shim was so much more than a translator and interpreter. She was a friend, political advisor, social and logistics wizard. Her spreadsheets genius set a high bar, and her gut sensibility and humor got us through many a rough moment. Thanks for eating that live abalone, buddy, and taking one for the team.
Diana Nucera, videographer, always knew how to remember what the priorities are, stay dreamy and keep life liveable.
Many people in Gangjeong village made this possible, especially, from behind the scenes: Uni Park, Sung-hee Choi and Silver.
HOBAK (Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans)—and Io Sunwoo in particular—introduced me to what was happening in Jeju, and it was their hard work and fundraising that brought Jeong Young Hee to come to Oakland, thus planting the seed for this project.
Eugene Kang, the original cheshik, caught fish from the stream with his bare hands for us to eat, demonstrating adaptability in the face of confusion.
Judy Hong made it okay to go to the beach.
Rin Kelly suffered through a first edit with astonishing enthusiasm. Marie Choi mopped up long after everyone went home.
And thanks to all my politically grounded, nerdilicious friends, inspirations and collagues, whose work and research over the years has looked at counter-globalizations and sought new ways to confront, reimagine and articulate power while telling the stories honestly: Helia Rasti, Carwil James, Diana Wu, Ralowe Trinitrotoluene Ampu, Vikki Law, Kat Aaron, Dani McClain, Jenny Lee, Cara Page, Harsha Walia, Aaron Lakoff, Adrian Lowe, Blake Nemec, Sarah Loose, Mona Yeh, Desiree Evans, Pascal Emmer and so many more.
And thanks to the Middlebury College Environmental Journalism Fellowship, which allowed me to work on this for months when I could have been waiting tables or collecting unemployment instead.