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Can Gangjeong Become an Incubator for the Peace Movement?

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by Jason Rawn

Greetings from Gangjeong village on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea (“South Korea”). I came here after attending the 23 Annual Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power In Space conference in Kyoto, Japan. The conference took place at multiple venues, including Doshisha University, Ritsumeikan University, the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, Ukawa Village (the site of a US X-Band Radar Base), and the Utano Youth Hostel. Presentations on Jeju Island as a possible aerospace warfare center, the continuing destruction of Okinawa, The US Military Space Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era, and US Missile “Defense”-centric Destabilization of Peace were just a few of the seminar offerings. One of the highlights for me was a presentation by Jan Tamas, Chair of the Czech Republic’s Humanist Party, “Experience and Lessons Learned from Stopping MD Facilities in the Czech Republic in 2009.” One of the banners shown during this presentation on their well-organized campaign read, “Yes We Can - Say No to US Military Base.”

From there I travelled by Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Hiroshima to join some Nipponzan Myohoji friends I met last Spring on the Walk for a Nuclear-Free Future/NPT Walk in California, Nevada, Arizona, and New York. We walked, drummed, chanted, and vigiled throughout the city and attended the official ceremony of the 70th Anniversary of the US military’s bombing of the city, during which children sang like angels and a number of people coughed politely to register disapproval of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his speech. Another man stood up quietly with a sign but was soon seated again after a visit from at least three security guards. There were also scattered shouts from the audience. In my section, around ten people applauded heartily after one comment. One example of why Abe’s policy is disliked is his administration’s efforts to overturn Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. This Article, imposed by the US after WWII, mandates that Japan’s military will be limited to defensive forces. To date there have been a number of large rallies and demonstrations in favor of keeping Article 9 intact.

Jeju Island was my next destination. Like everyone else who has visited Gangjeong village, I’ve sat at the gate holding an umbrella and a sign and have been carried to the side by some very fresh-faced persons in police uniforms. I’ve only personally experienced anything I can label “aggression” twice, and, given the actual physical violence faced by, say, Black people in the US at the hands of police there, it seems almost ridiculous to mention that one of the young police was staring me down. I usually scan their faces as I sit waiting to be moved, and I generally have a hat and sunglasses on, but when I noticed he was looking right at me, I looked right back. Then he sort of squinted his eyes, which I took as some kind of intensification of his gaze, a challenge. So I took my sunglasses off and he looked away immediately before we could make proper eye contact again. So I looked away, too.

Gangjeong and Jeju are at a crucial point. With the naval base - almost everyone I’ve met calls it a US base - nearing completion and slated to open in December, everyone’s wondering, What’s Next? To answer that question in part, I’ll tell you that the St. Francis Peace Center just opened here, with 700 people in attendance. The Jesuits are also nearing completion of their own facility, indicating that the Catholics are prepared for long-term, committed resistance to further militarization of this “Peace Island” as it was once known and could be known again.

In addition, some of the conversations about the future of the movement here these days are centering around peace education, the conversion of Alddreu, a 1930s-era Japanese airfield into a Peace Park, the establishment of a Peace Institute, and the demilitarization/reconciliation of the Korean Peninsula. People are also quite interested in organizing against further militarization on the island, and strategies for commencing this campaign in the coming months are being actively explored. Although there hasn’t yet been much support for a broader anti-militarization campaign from other activist groups across the island, activists in Gangjeong are determined that the continuing destruction of the village and the hard lessons learned not be in vain. They continue struggling despite increasing efforts to squash their work toward peace and solidarity.

One contribution I’ve been able to make to my friends and the struggle in Gangjeong has been through song. I’m honored to have sung and played guitar at the end of mass at the gate, at meetings, presentations, at a women’s shelter, and as part of a poetry/performance night. Although I have only recently found a decent rehearsal space where I can make some noise without feeling guilty or overly self-conscious - down by the riverside, actually - I’ve been able to keep up my callouses and vocal chords well enough to offer the following songs: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, Johnny Cash; Leonard Cohen’s songs Anthem, Bird on the Wire, and Heart with No Companion; Proud Mary by Creedence; Dylan’s License to Kill; Fly Me to the Moon (a song of love and flight played to counter two shows of force over the village by ROK’s intimidating stunt jets the Black Eagles, who spewed white smoke the first time, red, white and blue the second); Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land (This Earth is Your Earth); Here Comes the Sun by George Harrison; Mexico by Morrissey; Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay; The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel; Jesus Walking on the Water by the Violent Femmes; Ready to Go Home by Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley Blues by Gillian Welch. I have also played one song in Korean, Gangjeong Song, which I need to work on in order to sing it with confidence when I return to the US. I had a request for Heal the World by Michael Jackson and plan to play it and/or Man in the Mirror asap.