Jeju Island is alive.
The first thing I notice when we land from the mainland peninsula to the island is the air. It’s rich, fuller, and my nose and lungs are instantly satisfied. Its warmer here than on the mainland, and I instantly can see why the island is so popular with Korean newlyweds.
A couple hours of taking in tall mountains, the sea pounding upon rocks, and the feeling of sand beneath our shoes, and we get right to work at our first historical museum.
It’s a peace park telling the story of Jeju Island and its role with the US and S. Korean military. After independence from Japan, the US put troops in S. Korea to help establish a government (including putting a lot of the same leaders in place who were there during Japanese colonization). Since Jeju is off the main Korean peninsula, this help rebuilding
didn’t come until a couple years later… after Jeju island had already begun to make a self-sufficient government. By this time, Korea was being ripped into a North and a South, into a territory the US deemed friendly and territory the US deemed as enemy lines. Jeju didn’t agree with separate elections being held for South and North, believing in a unified Korea, so their boycott tagged them as ‘communist enemies’. Civilian massacres and bloodshed ensued, which has years later, been etched into plaques, graves, and hopes that such violence will not repeat itself.
Jeju is still alive.
We learn about Haenyeo, the women free divers who brave the rocks and waves to gather sellable goodies from the ocean floor. (cool NYTimes article about them here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/world/asia/hardy-divers-in-korea-strait-sea-women-are-dwindling.html?_r=1) These women dive from age 7 till 70, while their husbands fish on boats, reversing the traditional gender roll of men as breadwinners that’s so prominent in mainland Korea. The Haenyeo’s dangerous and physical lifestyle created a unique tight-knit sisterhood involving safety rules like ‘no diver dives alone’ and raising daughters to come alongside mothers on swims.
Now, there are few Haenyeo left, as daughters would rather work in the tourist industry than under the cold sea, but I still saw a dozen Haenyeo swimming out to sea in their wetsuits as I watched from the museum window.
Jeju is still alive.
Then we visited Gangjeong village, where a new highly-controversial Navy Base is being constructed amidst the natural soft coral reefs and UNSECO world heritage convention protected site on Gureombi rock, which is sacred and of utmost importance to the villagers. We hold hands with, dance, and sing with Korean and American protestors in front of the gates to the Navel Base, who later explain that most villagers understand the ecological destruction and fear future cultural destruction the base will bring, but were unable to vote against it. Catholic mass is held in front of the gates. Flowers are painted on windows in town, and trees are adorned with crochet to both combat the militarization of the island and highlight the existing culture of peace and art in Gangjeong.
The introduction of navy base soldiers will triple the population on the village, and it’s hard to see how this village of life, peace and culture will fare. We spoke with a pastor Sunday who told us that the navy base will defend peace on the island, but my head is full of questions as to who the defense is for. In theory, such a missile on Jeju could reach China, Japan, and North Korea. Whoever the system is put in place for, I’m wondering if the US’s new foreign policy to move military strategy away from the Middle East and shift it to Asian-Pacific countries, particularly China has something to do with it. I wonder how militarization can promote peace, not only in Gangjeong, but in bases around the world. How can the ability to park nuclear powered and possibly nuclear armed aircraft carriers in Jeju help bring peace to the island? I wonder what the activists marching anti-base signs are hoping for, now that the base construction is finished. I wonder if the trees will get to keep their crochet outfits, and windows will keep wearing flowers. As we ate lunch together in a make-shift kitchen close to the base, I looked up to realize the curious group of activists, Koreans, Americans, professors, artists, and volunteers I was sharing a meal with. Most of them realized the Navy Base was here to stay. But there they all were, peacefully protesting and making art and discussing the possibility of a building a peace school in their village.
In a town on an island that has already seen too much violence, they now are focusing on further developing their village of culture, peace, and art. They’re the peace promoters. They’re the mainlanders who have decided to build a life in Gangjeong to promote peace long-term, whatever that may look like. They’re the prayer warriors who thank God for creation, and attempt to protect it. They’re the artists who paint Gangjeon with life and flowers. They’re the ones full of life and hope in peaceful world.
Jeju is still alive.