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Why I Went to Jeju
(Dud Hendrick is a Vietnam veteran who was commissioned an officer after graduating from the US Naval Academy. He just returned from three weeks on Jeju Island, South Korea. He went representing Maine Veterans for Peace. Dud lives in Deer Isle, Maine.)
Because what is happening is reflective of America's world-view.
At the end of my talk [in Seoul, South Korea] on the eve of the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, a young woman introduced herself as Le Hoang Ngan, a Vietnamese student who was studying in Seoul. She had heard me speak of my experiences in Vietnam and specifically of Agent Orange, so asked if I thought America would ever make restitution for what it had done. Having just last year visited with Agent Orange victims and their families in the city of Cao Lanh, Vietnam, and having seen dozens of grotesquely damaged children in a Ho Chi Minh City orphanage, and having heard the demands of several prominent Vietnamese Agent Orange victim advocates, I knew I had a lot of emotion invested in the subject. I could not maintain my composure as I struggled to formulate a hopeful but honest response. My answer devolved into a broadside. I submitted that no matter how hideous the crime U.S. assumption of accountability was unlikely lest it be made to answer for all the other outstanding war crimes on the U.S. warrant since WWII. Hope, I said, can only be found in us activists who see what has been done, conclude that "this cannot stand", and work to bring the truth to others until there are millions of us and the dreamed of 'paradigm shift' we talk about so often is embraced by the critical mass.
Fundamentally, the U.S. has it all wrong. Our foreign policy is governed and shaped by a world-view that sees threats and creates enemies everywhere. We’re not dedicated to peaceful co-existence and co-operation, but to conflict and aggression. The dominant interests that determine our policies would seem inarguably to be those of the mega-corporations and militarism would seem all too often the expeditious way of securing them.
What is happening on Jeju is reflective of America's world view. It is consistent with what the U.S. has done in Korea since the end of WWII, is consistent with what we did in Vietnam and with what we continue to do elsewhere on the planet. What we do (bomb, drone, torture, imprison) is our foreign policy which reflects our world view.
Since the U.S. determined the 38th parallel would separate North and South Korea it has steadfastly made it so. Rather than participate in talks with North Korea, that is engage in diplomatic relationships, the U.S. has since 1950 refused to do so. "We don't reward bad behavior." And so tension has been the status quo ever since, punctuated with periods of "high alert", as is the case today.
As the drama of the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon plays out, we read and hear that the suspects are immigrants from Chechnya and the "unanswerable" questions are continuously raised. How could it be? How could they not embrace all that is good in America? Why would anyone want to kill innocents? We won't acknowledge that these same questions are being asked around the globe as our drones and sanctions and torture and imprisonments and bombings and….. You get the picture. What we have done since WWII, deliberately and indiscriminately targeting civilians, to protect the privilege of the empire's elite, can hardly be called anything but terrorism.
Our foreign policy is planting the seeds of hatred. It's very difficult to think anything other than that 'blowback' is inevitable.
Because I am a citizen of the empire.
I left Jeju and Korea troubled and burdened with conflicting emotions. Leaving good people committed to a purpose related to pain inflicted by my own government exposed me as little more than a dilettante. I do believe that with citizenship in the empire comes a responsibility for its deeds. I asked, or at least implied by the tenure of my remarks in Seoul, that the Korean activists "stay the course". And I shared with Sunghee that we can only find hope in our commitment to "keep on keeping on". It's unavoidable to me that this advice applies to us as citizens of the empire even more than to our Korean friends or any of the victims of U.S. foreign policy. If we fail to answer that call, f we dismiss the belief that committed people can bring change as naive, there can be no hope.
Because it is about empathy.
Referencing the agonies imposed on others by my country--Agent Orange, depleted uranium, nuclear radiation, torture, assassinations---I enjoined my audience in Seoul to stay the course. In the talk I had spoken of individuals I'd come to know who had been displaced from their native lands in Greenland, in Diego Garcia, and in the Marshall Islands. I also spoke of the Vietnamese I'd known as "gooks" during my first visit who had become brothers during and ever since my second and third and fourth return. And I spoke of the pain now being inflicted on the people of Gangjeong Village. My few days on Jeju were sufficient to build friendships and to deepen my commitment and responsibility to the "other". Empathy is an imperative.
Friday evening, April 12
I cannot say that I had looked forward to my last evening on Jeju--at least not with eager anticipation. All parting, following rich experiences, we know are difficult. This one would be especially so. In the brief time I'd been on Jeju I had come to feel inordinate connections. I'd had the pleasure, to paraphrase Alice Walker, of "experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness--." In the face of what seems to be inevitable defeat, many are resolutely objecting with their bodies and hearts and all of their energies. Their determination is infectious, each individual contributing to a formidable mass that we would all like to believe is indomitable. Some devil of realism had been demanding my attention, but the positive atmosphere around me was helping to beat it back. On this last night I would be taking a half dozen friends to dinner.
After dinner it was made clear to me that some words were expected--more than a perfunctory "thanks". We adjourned to the Peace Center where another dozen activists had come to hear what I had to say. I shared with them my own story of transformation. We in Veterans for Peace know our experiences may lend more weight to our words than deserved. My condemnation of militarism, on this occasion seemed understood and particularly appreciated. I also spoke of "hope" and where we find it using words of Zinn and Alice Walker. I brought to their attention the Searsport, Maine victory, attempting to draw some parallels and thanked them for their awe-inspiring steadfast determination.
Saturday, April 13
One last daybreak at the gate, one last stand in solidarity with the activists as another caravan of cement trucks passed by, and I had to be on my way. Sunghee, as she had throughout my stay, could not help but mother me. She lugged one of my bags to the bus stop giving us a last chance to visit. We spoke again of hope and where we find it. I had raised the subject thinking as the elder I could impart some wisdom, but conversation made clear it's not an issue for her. Her level of purpose transcends despair. She is simply "keeping on", relentlessly, stead-fast, damned the consequences. As has often been my experience here, I was receiving the lesson. Sunghee's not alone. There are many in the struggle, each assuming different roles. They find strength, I think, in each other. That community of purpose buttressed my hope.
At the beginning of my immersion in the Gangjeong struggle I had harbored a concern that the campaign was operating on auto-pilot; that there was not much day-to-day assessment of the effectiveness of strategies. As the days went by I came to appreciate that there was much going on behind the scenes and that ample communication among the various major players was happening. Now, as I was leaving I had developed a confidence that the people, in general, have a good sense of where they are in the struggle. These are not unschooled, inexperienced waifs at the mercy of the powerful forces arrayed against them. They have a mix of young and old, aggrieved Gangjeong villagers and seasoned citizen-activists from the mainland and beyond who have been in the struggle against the big/little brother joint military empire for years. I think they can look at the long vision. Gangjeong may be lost--maybe not; but through the struggle they are educating, educating, educating and they are making incremental gains. More and more people around the world are noticing. The seeds are germinating. There are more who understand the long-range folly of the dark forces who would waste our planet. More who know of the American civil rights activists, the Polish workers, the Danish resisters. More who know of the victory in Searsport, Maine.
Monday, April 15
As I had hoped, my decision to curtail my stay on Jeju offered important experiences and opportunities on the mainland. Monday in Seoul, the Global Day of Action on Military Spending was observed by a broad spectrum of organizations. Activists representing Peoples' Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, World Without War, War Resisters International, Peace Network, Weapons Zero, Frontiers, Palestinian Peace & Solidarity, the Society for Peace and Reunification of Korea, and a half dozen others would be coalescing around the issue of militarism. Father Pat and I joined a couple of dozen others for the early morning press conference in front of the National Assembly building. The number of journalists and photographers present was well beyond our wildest aspirations in Maine and, in fact, equal to the coverage often seen at our biggest national rallies. Though I could not understand a word spoken, Pat assured me the issues were well-covered to include Jeju. Additionally, some effective street theatre played well. Press TV noticed me as one of the few non-Asians in the crowd and asked for an interview. I was happy to accommodate them and hopefully connected a few dots while expounding on the inanity of the naval base at Gangjeong.
Following the press conference, Pat and I joined a group of the activists for a few hours of pamphleting and tabling at a nearby flower festival that attracted throngs of Koreans and tourists. More street theatre enabled us to distribute messages that generally don't play any better to the Korean public than to Americans. Four teletubbies were able to slip our flyers into the hands of the many who could not resist a photo-op. There was one American in the group who forsook propriety, thinking, "What the hell. No one knows me anyway."
VFP Teletubby in Seoul
Of course, the big event of the day (for me) was my talk, "Sorrows of Empire: Confronting U.S. Military Imperialism." I was hoping that my exposition on the consequences borne by neighbors of our bases in foreign lands and its relevance to Gangjeong would be clear. About 35 attended, representing several of the sponsoring organizations. Among the audience, predominantly young Korean activists, were a few of Pat's Columban House colleagues who support his work in solidarity with Jeju.They had made the long trip across Seoul and I was flattered by their comments. My words, simultaneously translated, prompted several questions both immediately following the presentation and during the social gathering afterwards, when we had the opportunity to learn of each other's work over makkoli (rice wine) and beer.
One of the leading organizers of the day had been Tom Rainey-Smith, a New Zealand expatriate and coordinator of Amnesty International Korea whose passionate work for human rights is presently focused on the victims of sex trafficking. Given my long-time concentration on the consequences suffered by the neighbors of our military installations abroad I had been especially anxious to meet Tom and was delighted to learn that he would be able to take me to two U.S. bases north of Seoul within 20 miles of the DMZ.
Tuesday, April 16
Seoul has the world's most extensive subway systems and is considered one of the best. Tom and I would be taking it out to Dongducheon, home of Camp Casey and 6300 military personnel. Historically, our 80+ bases around Korea have provoked much "push-back" in response to assorted consequences. I was anxious to see the environment around an installation first-hand.
I don't know that buying sex is a coming of age rite in our culture, but I would be comfortable in saying that it's common enough among men stationed in far-away places in the company of other young men where strutting macho behavior is stock-in-trade. The U.S. military knows well enough it's a problem and that the demand created around military bases leads to a thriving sex industry and to the exploitation of women and children.The U.S. military claims a "zero tolerance" policy, but, at least in Korea, that seems to be enforced with a wink and a nod. One report I have read reports there having been more than one million Korean women used in prostitution since 1945. In 2005, the U.S. government actually amended the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make "patronizing a prostitute" a court martial offense. After eight years of "enforcement" only 31 cases world-wide had been brought for "patronizing a prostitute"--- A fact that confirms my "wink and a nod" characterization rather than offering testimony to changing mores.
Tom and I were met at the Dongducheon station by Ko Woon Lee and Joyce Kim, two Korean-Americans who had been educated in the states and who are, today, working as advocates of the victims of this trade. Ko Woon explained to me that, for the most part Korean women are today no longer the prey. Economics had changed and first Russian and now, presently, Philippine women are the predominant victims. On arrival in the country, their sponsors/pimps take their visas and passports, they are bought in auction by club-owners, and pass into virtual slavery.
As it turned out, we were unable to see this archaic and debased scene in action. Soldiers at both the sprawling Camp Casey and nearby Camp Hovey, in Gwangom-dong, were confined to the base on "high alert" thanks to Obama and Kim Jung-un's inability to come to dialogue. Additionally, there had recently been a stabbing (Korean bar owner on soldier) at one of the bars. My photographs of the empty bars bear witness that the good times still roll, geo-politics and the occasional brawl notwithstanding. We'd have to guess that this, too, is coming to Jeju.
Wednesday, August 17
Father Patrick had been proclaiming this, my last day in Korea, was to be a "vacation" day, but I knew it to be far more promising than that. Father Patrick, Sister Teresa, Pat and I hopped an early morning subway headed west to Gwanghwa Island or Ganghwado. Our host would be Suzannah, the Korean peasant turned activist, whom I had met with Regina shortly after my arrival in Seoul a short life-time ago. Though her English is weaker than my Korean we had somehow connected and I was looking forward to learning her story.
Ganghwado lies at the mouth of the great Han River (which passes through Seoul) on the west coast and is connected to the mainland by bridge. Fourteen miles wide by 17 miles long, it is home to Suzannah and over 66,000 others, many of whom work the small vegetable tracts and rice paddies that lie between the forested hills and small mountains that dominate the island. Over a delicious Korean lunch (painfully partaken Korean style) I prevailed upon Suzannah to tell us her story.
Born to a peasant family, Suzannah, now on the far side of 60, had been forced to work in a factory at the age of 15, where she soon joined the Young Christian Workers' Movement. That early experience as a labor activist led to her later becoming involved in the anti-U.S. base movement and her subsequent friendship with Regina. The two of them have since committed their energies to anti-militarism.
After lunch Suzannah treated us to a tour of Ganghwado. We stopped along the way on a promontory at the northeast end of the island from which we could see North Korea, a short distance to the north, comparable to a swim across Merrymeeting Bay.
Looking across this divide, it was impossible not to think about the USS George Washington, the nuclear aircraft carrier soon to join other American warships in these waters. Since the truce interrupting the Korean War was declared in 1953, the U.S. has managed to spend $12 billion dollars annually "keeping peace" on the Korean peninsula. By doing so, our chosen path, we're keeping North Korea impoverished, spending 40% of their Gross Domestic Product on national defense. And now we're adding another irritant, another act of aggression against North Korea and China, the big base at Jeju. What must the part of the world not listening to or reading America's mainstream media think?
Thursday, April 18
Now on my way home, beginning to process all that I've witnessed. The appreciation and gratitude expressed by my friends and acquaintances on my departure was way disproportionate to my contribution. It seemed so genuine as to be authentic rather than simply manifestation of a dominant Korean trait. I'll accept it as that. I had been committed to proving, during my all-too-brief visit that my concern was heartfelt and that I was there to do anything possible in the way of demonstrating solidarity. Perhaps I'd made good on that resolution.
Alice Walker said, "Activism is my rent for living on this planet." I've got rent to pay for my stay on Jeju. What is happening there is indefensible. If we can stop it there, we must. Or, like whack-a-mole we must stop it elsewhere.
As the struggle in Gangjeong has taught me, we each have a voice. As we become more knowing, the voice gains authenticity and responsibility. As I have written, I left Gangjeong feeling to be something of a dilettante and in great conflict. The Sunghees, the Gilchuns, the Young Hees, the Reginas, the Tom Rainey-Smiths, the Father Patrick Cunninghams, the Sister Teresas, the Suzannahs, the Father Muns are on the front lines. The least we all can do is amplify their voices.