I had the opportunity to travel to Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea in the East China Sea from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4. I previously spent four days in Manila, Philippines, where I was invited to speak at the first Asia Pacific Dialogue on Human Rights and Respect for the Dignity of Life with the theme: "No Justice Without Life." I left an amazing community in Manila standing for life and justice and saying "No" to state-sponsored killing. In coming to Jeju Island, I met another extraordinary gathering of people who are saying "Yes" to creation and "No" to the construction of new naval base that is a crime and a sin.
For several years, I have been closely following this inspiring nonviolent campaign led by local islanders along with priests and sisters to stop the construction of this U.S.-backed Korean naval base on Jeju Island (named the "Island of Peace" by the Korean government).
UNESCO considers Jeju Island and nearby Beom Island, Moon Island, Seop Island, and Hallasan National Park biosphere reserves. The construction of this base, which is a joint Korean, U.S. and Japanese venture with Samsung as the main contractor, is destroying the beautiful ecosystem of the island as well as the majestic soft coral reefs and surrounding ocean life.
The ancient Gureombi rock formation no longer exists, having been blasted away two years ago. In the March 2014 issue of the Gangjeong Village Story monthly newsletter, the lead article lamented the second anniversary of the destruction of this sacred formation: "For thousands of years, Gureombi has been a playground, a garden, and a mother's arms, embracing and embraced by the people of Gangjeong. Thus it was perhaps the most painful and sorrowful moment of this 8 year struggle to experience the partial destruction of Gureombi Rock. Still, though we cannot see Gureombi anymore, it lives on in our memories."
Ultimately, the U.S. wants to use the base as an outpost to contain China. Peacemakers from the United States, including Bruce Gagnon, Regis Tremblay, David Hartsough, Ann Wright, Jesuit Fr. Bill Bichsel, Nick Mele, Kathy Kelly, Brian Terrell and Michele Naar-Obed, have come here to offer support over the last several years, and the local campaign has been deeply appreciative for this friendship and solidarity.
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Upon arriving in Jeju City, I received a very warm welcome by Fr. Pat Cunningham and the Columban religious community, who offered me hospitality for the night. The next morning, Father Pat and I took as bus to Gangjong Village, about an hour from Jeju City. We arrived just in time for the daily 11 a.m. Mass that occurs directly outside the entrance to the base construction site.
Father Pat and I joined with other friends, including longtime renowned peacemaker Fr. Mun Jeong Hyeon, who has spent nearly three years in prison for his resistance, in sitting on plastic chairs stretched out across the base entrance. As grace would have it, I also became reacquainted with two of the local organizers whom I had previously met in D.C.: Sung-Hee Choi and Jung Joo.
There were at least eight people from the community sitting in chairs, blocking the center of the entrance. As streams of cement and supply trucks entered and exited the base, police carried those blocking to the side of the entrance. Then the police permitted those forming the blockade to return to the entrance, where they continued the witness. This back-and-forth went on for at least one and a half hours.
Celebrating Mass and receiving the Eucharist in this context was a very powerful experience. In the face of this monstrous base, which is now halfway complete, the power of eucharistic love, borne out in nonviolent witness, is the means by which true conversion and transformation can occur. Those gathered at the base entrance, along with at least 30 people who also attended the Mass a short distance away, truly believe in miracles and that with God all things are possible.
Following the Mass, the gathered community prayed the rosary. This was followed by a press conference by the Gangjong Village Association, calling for an end to the expansion of military housing units being built in the village as a result of the new naval base. I then was invited on a tour of the port area of the island, where one can see a panoramic view of the massive base construction.
Cranes are visible everywhere on the site, while in the port, there is constant dredging to accommodate future warships. The Korean government has described the new base as a joint military port complex meant to encourage tourism in the beautiful landscape. Despite this and other attempts to deceive the public about the real purpose for the base, local villagers and their supporters refuse to be duped.
In the late afternoon, I met Yang Yoon-Mo, a well-known former film critic who has endured long-term imprisonment and hunger strikes for trying to stop the construction of the naval base. He is one of the more than 650 people who have been arrested for saying "No" to the naval base construction. There have also been 550 indictments for resisters, and about 45 people have served jail sentences for their courageous resistance. Yang and several others have set up a new vigil site at another part of the base perimeter where supply trucks are being redirected from the main entrance. Many villagers are upset that these trucks are now diverted through their neighborhood.
On Nov. 1, All Saints Day, I joined two other friends, Jesuit Fr. Kim Song Hwan and Gayun, in blocking the cement and supplies trucks. Moments after receiving the Eucharist, four police from the base hoisted me in my chair, banner in hand, and carried me over to the side of the road as they had done with Father Kim and Gayun. It was indeed a moving experience in more than one way! Once the traffic cleared, the three of us resumed our positions blocking the main entrance. This would happen two more times, once during the rosary and once when the human chain was formed across the road.
The Eucharist and the rosary have taken on a whole new meaning for me here as they occur in the context of an act of nonviolent resistance. In the face of this new port of death being constructed, I feel a power here that is far greater, that can truly overcome the idolatrous forces of military violence: the self-emptying, transforming love embodied in a living Eucharist.
The resiliency of this community is quite remarkable, and they remain deeply committed to a spirited resistance despite overwhelming odds. After the rosary ended, a human chain of about 30 people stretched across the entire entrance to the construction site. As I was still being surrounded by police who had carried me to the side of the entrance, I was handed the mic to lead several songs. I started off with "When the Saints Go Marching In," which was followed by "Down By the Riverside" and "Seek Peace and Pursue It," singing with police literally hovering over me as I sat in my chair. Following the human chain, there was an enthusiastic snake dance, then some exuberant dancing. The police, for the most part, let all this go on but continued to move anyone impeding supply vehicles from going into the site.
On my last day in Gangjeong Village, I joined the blockade at main entrance to the construction site and was carried off four times. After the rosary, I was carried off as I sang "We Shall Not Be Moved." I later asked Father Kim about the history of having the Mass at the base construction site. He told me that in 2009, Bishop Peter Kang U-il of Jeju Island, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, first celebrated Mass on the land designated to be the base. In 2011, Father Mun initiated having the Mass outside the main entrance of the construction site for the base. Father Kim also shared with me that he is assigned to be part of this nonviolent witness to stop the base construction and has been joined by other Jesuits, including his provincial, in blocking the base entrance.
My friend Bruce Gagnon, longtime peacemaker and coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, was the first one to introduce me, as well as countless others, to the nonviolent struggle in Jeju Island to stop construction of a new U.S.-backed naval base. His inspiring peace work has not only included stopping construction of this new base, but campaigning to stop the militarization of space and for the closing of the nearly 1,000 U.S. military bases worldwide. When addressing the struggle on Jeju Island, Bruce makes an important point that bears repeating: This nonviolent campaign to stop the construction of the new naval base on Jeju Island is an important symbol for the international peace movement. It brings together all the issues -- militarization, disarmament, the environment and human rights. I couldn't agree more with him.
Hopefully, before it's too late, more people will join and support the courageous people of Gangjeong Village in the struggle to stop the building of this base meant for death and destruction. I encourage people to see Regis Tremblay's excellent documentary, "The Ghosts of Jeju," which is the most important resource available about the nonviolent struggle on Jeju Island. For updates about the campaign and ways you can support it, go to savejejunow.org.
[Art Laffin is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C.]