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War and Peace in Korea and Vietnam – a Journey of Peace
By David Hartsough
I have recently returned from three weeks in Korea and Vietnam, countries which have in the past suffered and are still suffering from the ravages of war.
Korea -- North and South are caught in the tragic cold war mentality with a divided country imposed on them by the United States (and not opposed by the Soviet Union) back in 1945 and solidified in 1948. Ten million families were separated by the division of North and South. People in South Korea cannot phone, write or visit relatives or friends in North Korea and vice versa. One Catholic Priest from South Korea I met spent three and a half years in prison in South Korea for visiting North Korea on a peace mission. The border between North and South Korea is a battle zone where hot war could break out at any moment. The US and South Korean military regularly do full scale live fire war games invoking up to 300,000 troops simulating both defensive and offensive war including armed war planes right up to the border of North Korea. North Korea regularly makes threats of war as well. The Soviet Union is no more and it is time for the United States to ask forgiveness of the people of South and North Korea for imposing this state of war on the two countries, sign a peace agreement with North Korea to officially end the Korean war, recognize the government of North Korea and agree to negotiate all differences at the conference table, not on the battlefield.
I spent most of my time in Korea on Jeju Island, a beautiful island 50 miles south of the South Korean mainland where between 30,000 and 80,000 people were assassinated back in 1948 under orders from US military command. The people of Jeju island had strongly resisted the Japanese occupation during World War II and along with most people in Korea, were looking forward to a free and independent nation. However, instead of a unified country, the US imposed a strongly anti-communist government on South Korea and especially on Jeju Island. All who resisted a militarized and anti-communist South Korea were assassinated (more than 1/3 of the population at that time). Because of the anti-communist dictatorships for decades after 1948, the people of Jeju Island were not allowed to even talk about this past or they would be suspected of being communist sympathizers and severely punished. Only in 2003 President Roh Moo-hyun apologized on behalf of the Korean government for the massacre of the people on Jeju island in 1948. Jeju Island was then declared an “Island of Peace” and was also declared a “World Heritage Site” because of its coral reefs and natural beauty.
But now the US government has decided on the “pivot to Asia” and plans to move the focus of US military operations to Asia – presumably to encircle China with military bases and prepare for the next war. The village of Gangjeong has been chosen as the port for a massive military base which officially will be a Korean military base, but in reality is seen as a place for US military ships to help “contain” China. Thus, the fear is that Jeju Island could become a focal point for a new war – even a nuclear war between the US and China.
Since plans for the base were first announced seven years ago, the people of Gangjeong have been resisting the construction of the base and for the past four years have been nonviolently blocking bulldozers and cement trucks coming onto the base. Activists from South Korea (many in the Catholic church) have joined in this nonviolent resistance. Every day there is a Catholic Mass in which priests and nuns block the main entrance to the base and each day are carried off by the police when many cement trucks are lined up trying to get onto the base. When the police step aside after the trucks have entered the base, the priests and nuns carry their chairs back to continue blocking the entrance to the base – all the time in deep prayer. I joined them for the last two days I was on Jeju Island. After the mass each day which lasts about two hours, the activists come and do a dance blocking the main gate for another hour or so. Some of the people acting on their conscience blocking the entrance have spent over one year in prison. Others have had heavy fines imposed on them for their acts of conscience. But still the nonviolent resistance continues.
Some Koreans are working hard for reconciliation and peace between North and South Korea. But the governments of the US, South Korea and North Korea continue their military confrontation and now if this base is built, there will be another very large military base in South Korea. Concerned Americans need to support the nonviolent movement of the people on Jeju Island to stop the construction of the military base there.
I believe that the American people need to demand that our government stop the Pax Americana way of relating to the rest of the world. We need to settle our differences with China, North Korea and all nations by negotiations at the conference table, not through projecting our military power through threats and the building of more military bases.
And now on to Vietnam.
In April I spent two weeks in Vietnam as part of a Veterans for Peace delegation hosted by a group of American Vietnam Veterans living in Vietnam. The focus of our visit was to learn about how the people of Vietnam continue to suffer from the American war in Vietnam which ended 39 years ago.
Some of the impressions/highlights of my visit to Vietnam included:
· The friendliness of the Vietnamese people who welcomed us, invited us into their homes and have forgiven us for all the suffering, pain and death our country inflicted on them in the American war in Vietnam, with a hope that they and we can live in peace with one another.
· The horrendous suffering, pain and death caused by the war in Vietnam. If the United States had abided by the Geneva accords which ended the French war with Vietnam in 1954 and had allowed free elections in all of Vietnam in 1956, three million Vietnamese (two million of them, Vietnamese civilians) would not have had to die in the American war in Vietnam. The US military dropped over eight million tons of bombs (more bombs than were dropped by all sides in World War II) killing, maiming and forcing people to flee their homes and many of them to live in tunnels. In Quang Tri province four tons of bombs were dropped for every person in that province (the equivalent of eight Hiroshima –sized Atomic bombs).
· The people of Vietnam are still suffering and dying from the unexploded ordinance and Agent Orange dropped on Vietnam by the US during the war. Ten percent of the bombs dropped on Vietnam did not explode on impact and are still exploding in people’s back yards, in their fields and in their communities, causing people of all ages including many children to lose their limbs, eyesight or be killed or otherwise maimed. Eight hundred thousand tons of unexploded ordinance is still in the ground in Vietnam. Since the end of the war, at least 42,000 people have lost their lives and another 62,000 have been injured or permanently disabled due to unexploded ordinance. We witnessed one unexploded anti-personnel bomb found being safely detonated after being found about ten feet behind a home in a village when they were cutting weeds the day before we got there.
· Over 20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed on the people and country of Vietnam, including fifteen million gallons of Agent Orange to defoliate the trees and crops. There are three million Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange with deformed bodies and minds three generations later who are still suffering from this very toxic chemical which gets into the genes and is passed from generation to generation so children are still being born deformed in mind and body. We visited orphanages of children tragically affected by Agent Orange who will never be able to live a normal life. We visited homes where children were lying on the bed or floor not able to control their bodies or even recognize there were people nearby. A Mother or Grandmother spends 24 hours a day with the child loving and comforting them. It was almost more than our hearts could bear.
· The (American) Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 in Vietnam is helping support projects like Project Renew in which Vietnamese are trained to safely remove or detonate bombs or ordinance which are found in the communities. They are also supporting the orphanages and families where one or more family members cannot work by buying them a cow or putting a roof on their home or helping start enterprises like growing mushrooms which can be sold on the market for income for the family. Or projects where blind people can make incense and toothpicks which can be sold and help support their families. Our delegation contributed $21,000 toward the orphanages and in support of families suffering from Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance- a drop in the bucket compared with the need, but it was deeply appreciated.
· The US government should take responsibility for alleviating the suffering and pain our war is still causing the people of Vietnam and contribute the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to clean up both the Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance and support the families and victims still suffering from the war. The Vietnamese are ready to do the work, but need financial assistance. We Americans have caused this tragedy. We have the moral responsibility to clean it up.
· It was powerful to experience Vietnam with US veterans, who had been part of the killing and destruction in Vietnam and who were now finding healing from the pain of their war experience 40 or more years ago, through reaching out to the people of Vietnam who are still suffering from the war. One US veteran told us that after the war he could not live with himself or with anyone else and lived as far away as he could from other people – about a hundred miles north of Anchorage, Alaska working on an oil pipeline by day and was drunk or high on drugs the rest of the time to escape from the pain of his war experience. He said there were hundreds of other Veterans also in the back woods of Alaska who were going through the same experience. Only after thirty years of hell did he finally decide to go back to Vietnam where he has gotten to know the people of Vietnam and has found profound healing from his experience in the war – trying to bring healing for the people of Vietnam as well as for himself. He said the worst decision of his life was to go to Vietnam as a soldier and the best decision was to come back to Vietnam as a friend of the people of Vietnam.
· There is a bill which has passed Congress allocating 66 million dollars for commemorating the war in Vietnam in 2015, the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war. Many in Washington hope to clean up the image of the war in Vietnam – that it was a “good war” and something for which Americans should be proud. After my recent trip to Vietnam I feel very strongly that we must NOT allow our government to clean up the image of the Vietnam war. The Vietnam war was a horrible war as are all wars. Hopefully we will learn from history as well as from our religious teachings that War is Not the Answer, that war does not solve conflicts, but instead sows the seeds of future wars. War is a moral disaster for everyone including those who do the killing. (There is a very high number of suicides by both active duty soldiers and veterans, and the souls of all the rest of us are also wounded.)
· The United States could be the most loved nation in the world if we moved from our Pax Americana way of relating to the world to a worldview of a global human family. We need to work for “Shared Security” for all people on earth and act on that belief by spending the hundreds of billions we currently spend on wars and preparations of wars for human and environmental needs in the United States and worldwide. We could help end world hunger, help build schools and medical clinics in communities around the world – help build a decent life for every person on the planet. That would be a much more effective means of fighting terrorism than our present effort to find security through ever more armaments, nuclear weapons and military bases circling our planet.
I invite you to join many of us who are building a Global Movement to End All War – www.worldbeyondwar.org , to sign the Declaration of Peace, look at the ten minute video – The Two Trillion dollar question - and become active in this movement to end the insanity and addiction to violence and war which is so endemic in this country and around the world. I believe that 99% of the world’s people could benefit and feel much safer and have a much better quality of life if we were to end our addiction to war as a means of resolving conflict and devote those funds to promoting a better life for all people on the planet.
My experiences in Korea and Vietnam have only strengthened my belief that this is the path we must take if we are to survive as a species and build a world of peace and justice for our children and grandchildren and for all generations to come.
For more information about the struggle on Jeju Island, Korea, see the www.savejejunow.org website and the film, Ghosts of Jeju.
For more information about the situation in Vietnam and what the Veterans for Peace are doing to help support those suffering from Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance, see http://vfp-vn.ning.com
To find out more about the Movement to End All War, see www.worldbeyondwar.org.
David Hartsough is a Quaker, Executive Director of PEACEWORKERS in San Francisco, a Co-Founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce and a veteran of peacemaking work in the US and many other parts of the world. David’s book, WAGING PEACE: GLOBAL ADVENTURES OF A LIFELONG ACTIVIST will be published by PM Press in October 2014.