Korean Village Could Be First Casualty of US Military’s “Pacific Pivot”

Residents of Jeju Island are protesting construction of new joint US-South Korean Navy base

In November 2011, President Barack Obama, joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, announced the “Pacific Pivot,” a strategy to shift the US military’s focus to the Asia-Pacific region. The announcement was a signal to China that the United States would not permit its ascendance to advance any further into the US’s historic zone of economic and military domination, which dates back to the nineteenth-century occupations of the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii. But the announcement of the Pacific Pivot also raised a red flag for environmentalists, Indigenous peoples of the region, and small states within the Pacific Basin, who fear the consequences of this new geopolitical struggle. As an African saying goes: “When the elephants battle, the ants get crushed.”

Resistance to US military bases in the Pacific is not new. Massive protests in Okinawa sometimes draw as many as 100,000 people into the streets in opposition to the decades-old US bases there. On the island of Guam, a new, youth-driven movement has recently emerged to challenge the US military presence there. And in Hawaii, the long battle that began with the occupation of Pearl Harbor at the end of the nineteenth century continues today.

One of the newest (and most impassioned) resistance movements to US militarism is occurring on the small “island paradise” of Jeju, South Korea. Residents of the Jeju village of Gangjeong are putting their bodies in the way of the construction of a giant new Korea-US naval base. If completed, the base will house up to 8,000 marines and 20 warships, including nuclear submarines, giant aircraft carriers, and destroyers equipped with cruise missiles. The base is being constructed alongside a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, in an area with spectacular coral reefs and numerous endangered ocean and wetlands species. It’s also smack-dab on top of a 4,000-year-old community of farmers and fisherfolk.

Click to see a set of slides from Jeju Island

For over five years the villagers of Gangjeong have been fighting their battle in relative obscurity as the Korean press refuses to report on the controversy. Here’s the back-story.

A Military History of Destruction

Even before the Pacific Pivot was launched, the US had 219 bases strategically stationed on foreign soil in the Asia-Pacific, according to the Department of Defense. This figure excludes 311 bases in Guam, Samoa, Hawaii and Alaska. (China, for the record, has one military base planned for outside its borders, in the Indian Ocean.) Then, two months ago, the US announced it will expand its missile-defense shield in the Pacific region. The US has also begun expanding its troop presence in Darwin, Australia. And it is negotiating with the Philippines to re-open Subic and Clark Air Force bases, despite complaints about the carcinogens and radioactive waste these bases released into the environment – and never cleaned up – when they were operational. Secretary Panetta has also announced plans to build a new home base for US drones on the remote and beautiful Cocos Islands, just northeast of Australia. Further, Panetta is preparing to transform one million square miles of the fairly intact western Pacific into a huge navy training range called the Mariana Islands Range Complex (MIRC), where soldiers can practice dropping bombs, shooting at warships, blasting missiles through the sea, dumping toxic wastes, and saturating the Pacific with sonar.

Residents of these areas have reason to be wary. The history of US military operations in the Pacific has wiped out reefs and other marine ecosystems, threatened deep-ocean and shoreline wildlife and ecosystems, and impacted farmlands, forests, wetlands, and groundwater sources. And when the US military sets up a base next to island communities, it rapidly replaces sustainable subsistence economies with fast food restaurants, big-box stores, bars, brothels, and other consumptive demands to cater to the lifestyles of troops.

This is why the Okinawans, who have lost roughly 20 percent of their land, as well as reefs and other natural resources, and suffered the social impacts that come with drunken soldiers looking for fun, have been rallying for decades for an end to the US military presence. Their once-pristine tropical island serves as a warning to the rest of the Asia-Pacific, a living example of what sort of environmental and cultural destruction is in store for any community that plays home to the US military.

Of all the places in the Pentagon’s crosshairs sited for a military installation, Jeju Island’s Gangjeong village has been the most fiercely resistant so far, rivaling the Okinawans. Since 2007, when the Korean government announced plans for a base there, the villagers have exhausted every legal and peaceful means to halt the project. They have filed lawsuits against base construction, and even held a referendum in which 94 percent of the town’s electorate voted against base construction – a vote the central government refuses to recognize. So far the villagers have succeeded in delaying the project, but not halting it completely.

Resistance in Gangjeong

I first visited Gangjeong earlier this year, and was horrified to learn of the ecological wonders that would be destroyed if the base is built. The sea on the Gangjeong coast contains the world’s largest and most perfectly intact temperate soft-coral habitat in the world – a 15-acre undersea wonderland. It contains at least 60 species of coral, 27 of which are endemic and three of which are CITES-protected, all growing on dramatic, Andesite-lava-rock formations on the ocean floor. It is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Korean Natural Monument 442.

These waters are also home to the world’s most northerly pod of Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphins, the only pod of dolphins in Korea. What makes Jeju so hospitable is that the island, though situated at a temperate latitude of 33 degrees, is bathed year-round in waters as warm as those found in more southerly seas. This phenomenon is due to the Tsushima Current, which originates in Taiwan and travels past Okinawa before it reaches Jeju. As a result, Jeju waters host tropical coral and dolphin species, even in winter, when snow covers the island.

Another reason the coral ecosystem is so intact is because, unlike in the Philippines or Indonesia, the locals have never used dynamite for fishing. Rather, they have always practiced the ancient art of the haenyo in which a diver down swims to depths up to 65 feet on lung power alone, carefully selecting oysters, sea urchins, and abalone. Needless to say, a navy base, with its dredged ocean floor, its routine releases of chemicals and radioactivity, and its continual warship traffic will likely damage these astoundingly unique marine ecosystems as well as the culturally significant haenyo tradition.

While in Gangjeong, I also marveled at the quality and abundance of some of the purest fresh water in the world, which could be contaminated by the base. After rain falls atop Mt. Halla, the sacred dormant volcano which gave birth to the island, it sinks deep into the volcanic bedrock, where it is lava-filtered, before rising up again in Gangjeong, creating a freshwater springs that supply the southern half of the island with drinking water. A navy base could contaminate this water supply with trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic chemical solvent used for degreasing aircraft and ships and found in the groundwater of every location where there is a functioning military base.

Many of the freshwater springs bubble up on a one-mile stretch of lava coastline affectionately called the “Gureombi,” a Kona-style spillage of magma now hardened into a rocky wetland. The area is a unique breeding ground for thousands of unusual shellfish and seaweeds, as well as three endangered species: the red-footed crab, the endemic Jeju freshwater shrimp, and the boreal digging frog. Today, the Gureombi, which had fed Gangjeong for thousands of years, has been fenced off and covered with stacks of concrete forms. About 15 percent of the Gureombi has already been blasted away. As a result, this winter will be the first in millennia in which the villagers will not be able to forage for the 86 species of seaweed and more than 500 species of shellfish that had thrived there.

Here’s how Gangjeong Mayor Kang Dong-Kyun has described his now-severed relationship to the Gureombi:

“It has been one year since they separated us from the Gureombi. Yet, in my memory, I can still taste the sea grasses and seaweeds and shellfish as if it were yesterday. It is the most precious taste. It wasn’t fancy, there were no side dishes, but for us, it was the best food. When the government says that we have an incidental connection to the environment, they are mistaken. We have a very direct connection to the environment.”

Mayor Kang is one of scores of villagers who have been imprisoned for participating in direct-action protests against the base construction. Local residents have chained themselves to farm roads in an effort to block construction vehicles. They have kayaked to floating barges carrying construction material and occupied cranes to delay coral dredging. The villagers also have launched a boycott campaign against Samsung, the lead contractor in the $900 million project. Each day dozens of villagers conduct a silent meditation and protest at the construction site. Often they are met by hundreds of riot police. Mayor Kang has said: “If the villagers have committed any crime, it is the crime of aspiring to pass their beautiful village to their descendents.”

International Conservation Group Caught in the Controversy

An unforeseen opportunity presented itself to base opponents when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) decided to hold its huge, quadrennial conference on Jeju last September only four miles from Gangjeong. Always alert to any chance to broadcast their virtually unknown story to the rest of the world, the villagers hoped use the occasion to expose the environmental and human-rights violations taking place in their ancestral home.

But they were in for a rude surprise – the IUCN leadership tried to block them at every turn: They denied the villagers’ application for an information booth at the gathering and tried to prevent any speaking appearances at the conference, even after some villagers were invited by IUCN members. The reason? The IUCN was getting heat from its main financial sponsors – the Korean government and Samsung corporation – to completely snuff out any voices of protest both from Gangjeong and from outside.

Dr. Imok Cha, a California physician, was scheduled to speak about the base controversy at the IUCN conference. She planned to present the results of an independent scientific assessment that revealed serious flaws and omissions in the environmental impact assessment that was used to justify base construction. But Dr. Cha never got the chance. After flying all the way to Seoul, she was stopped at the airport, fingerprinted and footprinted and put on the next plane back to the US. No reasons were given for her deportation.

Word quickly got out at the convention about the IUCN’s complicity in the repression by the Korean government. Suddenly, the Gangjeong villagers were thrust into the limelight, and their struggle became a test of the IUCN’s moral integrity. A rift opened within the organization quickly over the question of where the IUCN’s allegiance should be – to its principles or to its sponsors. By the time the conference was over, many members quit the IUCN, stunned by its inability to live up to its vision of “a just world that values and conserves nature.” But the good news is that thousands of environmentalists returned to their home countries knowing the plans for Gangjeong, with some of them stepping forward to provide expertise and support to the village.

Latest Developments

The month of October has also been momentous and fraught with turmoil for Gangjeong villagers. Mayor Kang is now leading the Grand March for Life and Peace in which he and villagers are traveling the length of the country, by foot, to Seoul, and holding rallies against the base in dozens of stops along the way. They expect to arrive in the capital city on November 3.

Unfortunately, however, the Grand March has left the village undefended by its usual retinue of residents who meditate daily at the construction gate. Samsung has taken full advantage of this and has cranked up construction to 24 hours a day, with hundreds of riot cops on duty around the clock. Villagers not participating in the Grand March have begun sleeping in the streets during chilly autumn nights to block cement trucks from entering and exiting. But there is not much sleep to be had as scuffles with police continue through the night. Many protestors have to be carried to the hospital by ambulance.

Meanwhile, at the National Assembly in Seoul, top-ranking international marine biologists have offered testimonies, translated into Korean, that highlight how priceless and irreplaceable the natural wonders found in Gangjeong’s waters are. (South Korean scientists don’t dare to cite any data that contradicts the government’s crooked EIA, due to fear of being blacklisted.)

The Gangjeong story is only one case study in a slew of vulnerable Asia-Pacific locales that are falling prey to the Pacific Pivot. What is crucially needed is a global movement to counter the Pacific Pivot’s root cause: the competition between the US and China for geopolitical dominance and the plunder of natural resources on land and below the sea that is behind it all.

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