|Activist Choi Sung-Hee explains why the people of Jeju Island are saying 'no' to the construction of a naval base
[Ana de Sousa]
Charge: Obstruction of Business
The Accused: Choi Sung-hee
I, Choi Sung-hee, am a visual artist. I have been drawn to the beauty of Jeju Island, the pearl of Korea, and to the beautiful ecological preservation of Gangjeong village, which has been called the diamond of Jeju Island. I have also been drawn to the friendly spirit of the Gangjeong villagers who live peacefully with nature. Their will to protect and love the natural environment has moved me deeply, and I have been very inspired by their independent historical consciousness to realise peace for the greater people of Jeju Island through their preservation and protection of their village. I believe that their admirable spirit deserves the support and respect of all the Korean people as well as the people of the world. It is for this reason that I demonstrated my support for their non-violent and peaceful resistance against building the naval base.
Every time I placed myself beneath the wheels of construction trucks in an effort to protest the illegal, cunning, and manipulative measures to carry out the construction of naval base, I reminded myself of two important mottos, which were articulated by the older generation of colleagues. The first is: "Unless you come forward, who will speak for that coral, fish, and shells that cannot speak?" The second is: "This land we are living on is on lease from the next generation of people."
The construction area that I endeavoured to protect is home to endangered species like the red-footed crab and the narrow-mouthed toad, which are recognised by the Ministry of the Environment. On March 15, 2011, the Jeju Provincial Assembly rescinded the motion to nullify the "absolute preservation area" designation, thereby re-establishing the legal grounds for the protection of the Jungdeok coastline. Several legal actions by local residents are also underway, including an appeal to rescind permission to use this area for national defence and as a military facility, an appeal to affirm the "absolute preservation area" designation, and an appeal to ensure the public right to fair surface water use. In addition, the project for preservation of cultural assets is still in progress yet what has been assessed through this project has not been properly conveyed to the local residents. In light of the ongoing status of these legal actions and the cultural assets assessment, I cannot but arrive at the conclusion that the move to forcefully continue with construction without checking into or conforming to proper procedures is illegal.
In the case of the Saemangum area, construction was brought to a standstill because of a legal dispute. Why then is construction at Jeju Island being enforced without accountability or conformity to legal safeguards? Construction companies contend that the suspension of work harms business, but companies, which employ a lot of subcontractors, foster the conditions that themselves generate problems.
Construction companies, the navy, prosecutors, and the police charged me with 20 counts of obstructing business, but what I did was to obstruct their illegal actions. In fact, what I did was meant to halt the manipulation of the law, which exploits people in order to advance the narrow interests of power. Siding with the haves in society, all branches of authority, i.e., legislative, executive, and judicial, exercise absolute power and wield illegal violence in their attempt to shrink any space for disobedience and dissent. Insofar as my actions were undertaken as a last resort to legally assert self-defence, I am not guilty.
I object to the charges related to the events of May 19. On that day, the Seogwipo police and the Jeju prosecutor arrested me on the spot as a criminal who had been obstructing business, yet the situation was as follows: construction workers and police were carrying out the demolition of neighbouring facilities through "execution by proxy" without ensuring that proper legal steps were taken. At that point, seven villagers and civil rights activists had already been arrested so I, along with other women, raised a banner in silence: "Touch not even one stone, touch not one flower." I do not remember if the police read me my Miranda rights; all that I remember is that they said, "Ms. Choi Sung-hee, we hereby arrest you as a criminal". After this, five or six policewomen, dressed in civilian clothes, forced me into a police car, and, the police and Jeju prosecutor rendered me into custody on the charge of obstructing business. They say I obstructed business on May 19, but how does expressing protest by silently holding a banner constitute an illegal act tantamount to damaging the property of construction companies?
Moreover, they inserted a clause indicating that I placed myself under the wheel of a construction truck in order to justify their "arrest" of May 19 and "detention" of May 21, only to remove this clause along with the word "criminal-in-the-act" from arraignment after I protested. They "arrested" me first with a "false indictment" in order to "detain" me in custody. I cannot help but suspect that the whole rigmarole was designed for my "detention". The Gangjeong village association and peace advocacy group that I am affiliated with accordingly released a public statement on May 23 to criticise the police and the prosecutor, which indicated that "the prosecutor, in conducting an investigation to determine the validity of the arrest warrant for Choi Sung-hee falsified additional information for the purpose of indictment" and that "the prosecutor indicted Choi Sung-hee on false charges that she obstructed business".
I feel it is important to ceaselessly expose abuses of power and to highlight the need to curb such abuses on the part of the Seogwipo police department and the Jeju prosecutor's office whose officials are paid by the islanders' tax money. I speak out against the abuse of power because I fear that there will be more victims like myself if I remain quiet. Recently, the police and the prosecutor's office have been badgering the residents of Gangjeong with a barrage of citations and demands for compensation for the damages the residents supposedly caused to the tune of about $280,000. This is nothing more than an oppressive tactic aimed at creating tension among the residents who in turn will blame peace activists for provoking the officials to behave badly, thereby driving a wedge between the activists and the residents.
The history of Jeju Island is one of endless struggle against outside forces and this time, it faces the might of the central government and the Korean navy. The Jeju prosecutors and Seogwipo police, instead of acting on behalf of the islanders, are committing treachery in collusion with the central government. A survey indicates that 44 per cent of the residents of Gangjeong village suffer from severe depression, and 34.7 per cent of them have attempted suicide. On June 17, a villager was reported to have attempted suicide by consuming herbicide. On June 20, navy personnel resorted to violent means to disband a group of peaceful demonstrators. Former assemblywoman Hyun Ae-ja made a statement: "It's a crime for the military to treat civilians with violence, even in wartime." However, the central government, against the wishes of the villagers, quietly watched the navy ruin the shoreline of the rare coral reef, which had been designated as a natural treasure.
Many people voiced their concern that Jeju Island and its future generations will become vulnerable to attack because its naval base is associated with the missile defence system of the US. It is my duty and right to enact a peaceful non-violent demonstration against a base which is certain to invite war. I am told that about 1,000 people have telephoned the Korean embassy in Washington D.C. to voice their opposition to the naval base construction in Gangjeong. The danger of building a naval base in JeJu has become a concern for not only Koreans but also the international community. I understand that a Korean embassy worker told callers that they should contact the US government because it is pushing the naval base project rather than the Korean government.
Your Honour, why is the naval base problem developing into the second 4.3? One of the main reasons is because both the 4.3 massacre and the naval base conflict stemmed from the contravention of rights by outside forces (such as the US) and their threat to the islanders' right to peaceful existence. That is the reason why Jeju residents (who more than anyone had resisted outside powers) and the citizens of the Korean peninsula must recognise the fact that the major international powers have designs on the Jeju Island as a geo-strategic location. They must realise that their home could become a battleground for the major powers and put a stop to the naval base.
Recent tensions between the US and China justify our concern for the peace of Jeju. At a US-Japan conference on June 21, the importance of forming alliances to isolate China was emphasised, suggesting the participation of the US, Australia, Japan, India and Korea. In this conference, the sale of Standard Missile 3 (developed by Raytheon of the US and Mitsubishi of Japan) to Korea surfaced as a strong possibility. On July 9, the US, Japan, and Australia held a joint military exercise near Brunei in Indonesia. On that same day, the US nuclear submarine USS Texas entered Korea's waters and docked. Korea and the US plan to hold training sessions for airborne fuelling procedures every six months in preparation for possible actions against China, according to the experts. US fuel-supply airplanes are said to operate out of its airbase in Okinawa. On August 4, the former chief of staff for the Korean air force was reported to have revealed military secrets to Lockheed Martin, the US maker of fighter airplanes as well as destroyers that might dock in the Jeju naval base.
Was there American pressure to build the naval base on Jeju Island? I hear the clicking of the champagne glasses in the halls of weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon amidst the moaning sounds by the Gangjeong villagers. What region and country can revitalise the trade in US weapons, their number-one export following their economic difficulties due to their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea.
The island of peace is facing a crisis.
According to the Jeju Daily on July 12, the third clause of UNESCO rules calls for continuous efforts by the governor in order for Jeju to retain its UNESCO designation as a natural treasure; the fourth clause calls for the islanders' cooperation in the upkeep of the natural treasure. Assemblyman Yoo Won-il points out that the naval base site is only 1.5km from the UNESCO biological protection area; construction of the naval base will certainly cause UNESCO to retract its designation.
Instead of providing protection for the area, Governor Woo Geun-min is colluding with the navy to ruin it. He is also trying to bring commercial tourism into the area. He recently stated that the department of defence promised to help him promote tourism. Samsung, one of the firms involved in the naval base construction, has already begun advertising for tourism. When we examine all of these factors, we can conclude only one thing: the government, the military, and the corporations are colluding to destroy the environment, against the wishes of the islanders.
It is my hope that building the island of peace is actually realisable, not merely in language. Many people speak of building a peace park and a UN peace school instead of the naval base. Don't you feel warm thinking about a world in which our young people and their children - free of pressure from draft and school tuitions - realise their dreams and work together to build a peaceful world? That hope keeps alive my passion for justice and gives me courage.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.