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Citizens Challenge Police to Prevent Construction of a Naval Base on Jeju Island, South Korea
By Ann Wright
Yesterday, August 24, 2011, sirens wailed for citizens to come to the main gate of the Naval Base in Kang Jeong Village on Jeju Island, South Korea where the Korean Navy wants to continue construction of a naval base for 18 ships and a 2 submarines in an area that will destroy a pristine shoreline and endanger marine life. Local villagers and activists from the mainland of South Korea have struggled for five years to prevent the construction of the base.
Sirens signal an emergency-the mayor and four activists are arrested
The siren sounds like a tsunami warning signaling an emergency. And that is what it is-an emergency with 5 activists arrested, including the mayor of the village of Kang Jeong at a huge construction crane on the base. The crane had been brought onto the naval base several years ago in the middle of the night in the Navy’s attempt to escape the wrath of the villagers. It is a huge crane weighing 250 tons and it was brought over a bridge that can hold only 50 tons. The mayor of the village is intent on not allowing the illegal crane to be operated. He wants it dismantled and taken away. The mayor, the peace camp cook and three activists who came racing to the aid of the mayor were also arrested.
Hearing the emergency siren, 60 people quickly arrived to block the main gate of the base with trucks, cars and their own bodies. Others raced to the back entrance to the base to block it. Many were local farmers who had come directly from their fields of tangerine trees and from hot houses where they grow vegetables. They had jumped on their motor scooters to answer the emergency call, not bothering to change from their farm work clothes and wide brimmed work hats and rubber boots. Text messages were flying explaining the situation and directing people to go to the gates of the base. Tweets were alerting solidarity activists around the world to the emergency. An international peace camp had been held here last week and those activists would want to know about the situation.
At the main gate, ten citizens locked chains around their necks and around each other and sat directly in front of a police line that had been placed in front of the gate. One citizen locked a chain around his neck and directly onto a truck that was blocking the entrance to the base.
Crowd stops police car and surround the police
Four of those arrested had been moved from the naval base to the local jail by the time the entrances were blocked. Only the mayor remained inside the base. After several hours, the crowd spotted a police car attempting to leave the base by another entrance and inside was the mayor. The crowd chased the police car on foot, caught it and put their bodies in the way so the driver could not move forward. Cars and trucks quickly followed successfully blocking the police car.
About 60 police reinforcements with batons and shields but no weapons pushed their way past the activists and formed a protective ring around the police car. The police appeared to be new recruits who were doing their obligatory government service. They were very young and looked very scared.
Very quickly the citizens encircled the police and the police car and sat down. From time to time, the police would attempt to move the crowd out of the way, but the citizens would stand up and move directly in front of the police shields. Women, old and young alike, were on the front lines refusing to let the police move and pushing back furiously.
Remarkably, the police did not use their batons on the demonstrators. One person told me that the police on the island are very aware of the history of Jeju Island in which over 30,000 persons, many of whom wanted their country unified after World War II, were massacred by the right wing government of Sighman Rhee that considered them communist sympathizers. Anyone found farther inland that 2 miles were considered guerillas and were hunted down in a scorched earth policy by military and right wing youth brought in from the mainland of Korea.
Many of the police who live on the island had relatives that were killed in what is called the April 3 massacre that lasted over 18 months (1947-48). The small island police force does not want to be seen as heavy handed. Because of this attitude, the national government last month heavy-handedly sent 1,500 mainland police to Jeju Island to use water cannons and tear gas against those challenging the construction of the naval base.
The stalemate of citizens encircling and trapping the police lasted for 5 hours and took on a community event atmosphere. The fiery wife of the mayor stood on the top of a vehicle urged the crowd to protect her husband and then dived into the police line from on top of the vehicle! A huge sound system on the top of another van blasted favorite protest songs including one that told the story of the April 3 massacre. The nightly 8pm candlelight vigil was held in the road with candles placed in front of the police line. Friends sat in small groups talking about the next steps in preventing further construction of the naval base.
Activists chain themselves to a van
Another scene was unfolding back at the main gate. As the police rushed from the main gate up the road to protect the police car carrying the mayor, the way was left open for a protest van to move onto the entrance of the bridge just past the main gate, blocking one of the main roads on the island. Citizens with chains surged to the vehicle and locked themselves onto the undercarriage of the van. A smaller group of police then surrounded the van, but after several hours of watching the group chained to the van, they got tired and sat down along the sides of the bridge.
By midnight a deal had been struck. The mayor and four others would be released after making an appearance at the Seogwipo Police Station/jail. The crowds slowly opened so the police and the police car could leave. Not all the citizens agreed to the deal thinking that once the mayor left in the police car, their leverage was gone.
And they were right. 50 citizens slept all the rest of the night on the sidewalk outside the jail waiting for the appearance of the Mayor and the other activists-to no avail! The police violated their agreement and at 2pm all are still in jail.
In the meantime, another emergency siren blared this morning, calling people to the construction site again. A crane operator was moving some heavy equipment. Citizens raced to the site and laid down in front of the crain where they still are.
Here goes the siren again-another emergency in the lives of the citizens of Kang Jeong to save their lovely land.
About the Author: Ann Wright is a 29 year US Army/Army Reserves veteran who retired as a Colonel and a former US diplomat who resigned in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq. She is a member of the No More Bases coalition and has worked with activists in Okinawa and Guam to stop US military expansion. This is her first trip to Jeju Island, South Korea. She was an organizer of the 2011 US Boat to Gaza, “The Audacity of Hope” and was on the 2010 Gaza flotilla that the Israeli military attacked and killed 8 Turkish and 1 American citizens and wounded 50. She is the co-author of the book "Dissent: Voices of Conscience." (www.voicesofconscience.com).