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Category: Politics, Economy, Environment, International

The Arms Race Intrudes on a South Korean Paradise

| August 8, 2011

by Gloria Steinem

Cross-posted from the New York Times.

There are some actions for which those of us alive today will be judged in centuries to come. The only question will be: What did we know and when did we know it?

I think one judgment-worthy action may be what you and I do about the militarization of Jeju Island, South Korea, in service of the arms race.

Jeju isn’t called the most beautiful place on earth for nothing. Ancient volcanoes have become snow-covered peaks with pure mountain streams running down to volcanic beaches and reefs of soft coral. In between are green hills covered with wildflowers, mandarin orange groves, nutmeg forests, tea plantations and rare orchids growing wild; all existing at peace with farms, resorts and small cities. Unesco, the United Nation’s educational, scientific and cultural organization, has designated Jeju Island a world natural heritage site.

Now, a naval base is about to destroy a crucial stretch of the coast of Jeju, and will do this to dock and service destroyers with sophisticated ballistic missile defense systems and space war applications. China and South Korea have positive relations at the moment. But this naval base is not only an environmental disaster on an island less than two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, it may be a globally dangerous provocation besides.

Residents of Gangjeong, the village that is to be home to this base, have been living in tents along the endangered coastline, trying to stave off the dredging and bulldozing. In a vote several years ago at a village meeting, residents overwhelming opposed the base.

They’ve tried to block construction with lawsuits and pleas for a proper environmental impact study. They’ve been fined, beaten, arrested and imprisoned. They’ve gone on hunger strikes, chained themselves to anything available, invited tourists in to see what’s at stake, established Web sites and won support from global peace organizations. Members of the “no base” campaign, including children, camp out along the shore behind high walls erected around the site to conceal the protests. Police officers patrol outside. This has been going on for more than four years.

You may be wondering why you haven’t heard more about it. I doubt that I would know, either, if I hadn’t visited Jeju Island nine years ago, and been unable to shake the memory of its beauty, and traditions that may be remnants of an ancient culture of balance. The island itself is said to be the body of the Creation Goddess, and is often called Women’s Island. It is home to the legendary women deep-sea divers known as Haenyeo, as well as sacred goddess groves and shamanistic traditions. For many women especially, it is becoming a symbol of what once was and could be.

But among the half million or so residents, there are also memories of terrible loss. Before and during World War II, Japanese troops stationed there used islanders as forced labor and murdered many. Just before the Korean War, South Korean forces burned villages to the ground and killed perhaps as many as 30,000 islanders because they didn’t support dividing the peninsula into North and South, and so were assumed to be Communists. But with work and old wisdom, Jeju gradually restored its uniquely peaceful culture as South Korea’s only autonomous province. In 2006, Roh Moo-hyun, then South Korea’s president, apologized for the massacre and declared Jeju the Island of Global Peace.

When I was invited in May to again visit Jeju, by friends in the Korean women’s movement, I could see why it attracts peace conferences, honeymooners, environmentalists, marine biologists, film crews, pilgrims and tourists. But I also visited the peace encampment, within sight of harassing police officers and waiting bulldozers. The mayor of Gangjeong, the leader of the resisters, said quietly that he and others would give their lives to stop construction. His 92-year-old mother walks down from the village to the shore every evening to make sure he is still alive.

Still, the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, a former head of a construction company who was known as “Mr. Bulldozer,” hasn’t yet had a change of heart about supporting the naval base. Indeed, he seems to have the same relationship to construction that President George W. Bush had to oil. But I fear South Korea is a tail being wagged by the Pentagon dog. In contrast, his predecessor, Mr. Roh, said before he died that he regretted only two things: sending South Korean troops to Iraq and permitting a naval base on Jeju Island.

Jeju Island is on a very short list of candidates in a public Internet campaign to choose a new seven wonders of the world, and Mr. Lee is campaigning hard for it. He may have to choose. How can Jeju Island be one of the seven wonders when its claim rests on nature about to be destroyed?

Meanwhile, there are more people signing protest petitions on the Web, calling anyone they know in Washington, or going to Jeju Island to support and safeguard the protesters and show that tourists without guns, not military bases, are its economic future. In my daily e-mails with protesters on Jeju, I learned that bulldozers were spreading small rocks in preparation for laying concrete over lava, and living coral that is a distinctive natural habitat. Once the bulldozers are out of sight, children pick up those rocks, pile them into towers and plant a peace flag in each one.

For myself, I am writing this column, putting a petition on my Facebook page, and hoping for enough Arab Spring-like activism to topple one naval base.

I’ve never known less what will happen. I can still hear the dolphins crying as if sensing danger. But somehow, my faith is in the villagers who say, “Touch not one stone, not one flower.”

Besides, now you know.

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