THE BLOG

At the Heart of Activism

08/11/2011 01:14 | Updated 07 January 2012

I had never heard of the island of Jeju in South Korea before I set off to film there. The protest movement against the construction of one of South Korea's largest naval bases was hardly known to the world.

As I began a period of research, the situation in Gangjeong village was rapidly escalating drawing international attention. This is an extraordinary story of a village, a population of almost 2000 people, battling to stop the construction of a geopolitical, strategic naval base serving South Korean and American interests on their doorstep.

In what seemed like a short period of time, confrontations between the village and the authorities exploded. One of the activists with whom I had planned to film was arrested and sentenced to eight months for lying down in front of the bulldozers.

Several weeks later the Mayor of the village was arrested for peacefully protesting outside the gates of the construction site. More and more villagers and activists disappeared behind bars. On 2 September, three days before I was due to arrive, 1000 riot police from the mainland descended on Gangjeong village in what was the biggest crackdown on the protestors to date.

The prevailing sense when we arrived in the picturesque and sleepy village of Gangjeong was one of despair. The core leadership of the anti-naval base campaign had been destroyed after the 2 September arrests. Villagers and activists were in a state of shock traumatised by the recent events.

Despite the sadness of the village, we received a generous welcome. The first night, we were invited by the community to their nightly candlelit vigil to commemorate the struggle. This vigil has taken place in the centre of the village every night for the last four and a half years to mark every day of the campaign. I was struck by the energy and resolute attitude of the villagers to protect their land.

Bordering the village centre are two general stores, one opposed to the naval base and one for. An argument broke out on the fourth day of filming between the two store owners. This epitomised the disintegration of a gentle community.

Signs of distress caused by the construction of the naval base are palpable. Skirmishes between the police and protestors are a daily occurrence. I was told that a medical study carried out by psychologists from the mainland to assess the impact on the community found a 44% increase in the suicide rate with a sharp rise in mental health problems and alcohol abuse.

The coastline of Gangjeong is made up of a unique volcanic rock. Its eerie but beautiful shoreline is home to colourful marine life. The seas around the village have been a source of livelihood for generations. Gangjeong villagers can no longer visit their precious coastline as the navy has erected a huge wall around the construction site cutting the residents off from the sea.

During filming, I encountered activists who take innovative and courageous direct action to reoccupy their coastline. Hyun Ae Ja, a former member of the National Assembly chained herself to the construction site for over three months. She told me the only line of defence left for the village is to use their bodies. We had to stop halfway through the interview as she broke down in tears. As Having worked as a farmer on the island before going into politics, Hyun Ae Ja knows only too well how important the land is to the people.

Sung-Hee Choi gave up her career as a visual artist on the mainland to join the struggle of Gangjeong village. She began to contribute to the effort by documenting the environmental destruction disseminating her findings to a wider international community via Facebook and blogs. But, she too soon felt the need to take direct action. Sung-Hee lay her body under the bulldozers. The police arrested her for obstruction of business and trespass. She was sentenced to eight months in prison with two years probation. When I asked why she felt the need to intervene, Sung Hee responded quoting two old Korean sayings, '"Unless you come forward, who will speak for the coral, fish, and shells that cannot speak?" and "This land we are living on is leased to us from the next generation."

Every morning at dawn, Dr. Song Kang Ho swims to the construction site. He swims against a heavy tide of police and navy surveillance. It's a remarkable sight - a lone figure in a sea of police. Dr. Song is on probation for obstruction of business and trespassing. Every time he enters the construction site, he is fined approximately $2000. Dr. Song told me he is now bankrupt and has lost count of the amount he owes but it's something in the region of $20,000. Now when he swims, he risks a three year prison sentence. This act of defiance came to symbolise the protest and to remind us that this coastline is a sacred place for Gangjeong village.

The local and national police have filed over 500 criminal charges against the villagers and activists The anti-naval base campaign continues despite the crackdowns and rapid destruction of the village's land. Whether the will of the people will win out is still to be determined.

What is sure is that this island, this village has a history of military occupation. After Japan surrendered in 1948, the island of Jeju allied itself to the communist North during the Korean War rejecting the alliance with U.S. Bolstered by the US, the South Korean government sent troops to wipe out the islanders accused of being communist.

Over 30,000 men, women and children were massacred in the years before the Korean War. The massacre wiped out 10% of the island's population. It puts things into perspective when we try to understand why this community will risk everything to prevent remilitarisation of their island and the destruction of their once peaceful shores.