| By Medea Benjamin*
When our US peace delegation entered the South Korean village of Daechuri,
near Pyongtaek city, it was already evening. It isn't easy getting
into the village. Residents can only enter and exit through checkpoints
set up by the South Korean military, despite the fact that the Korean
National Human Rights Commission declared the checkpoints illegal and
a violation of the villagers' human rights.
Visitors are often prohibited from entering Daechuri, especially “troublesome”
peace activists supporting the local struggle to stop the US military
base from taking over the village. When our delegation arrived, we were
met by an overwhelming force of some 200 police in riot gear! They had
obviously heard that an international delegation, including well-known
peace mom Cindy Sheehan, was going to attempt to enter the village and
spend the night there. But perhaps because we were accompanied by a gaggle
of press, after much back and forth between our Korean hosts and the police,
we were eventually allowed in.
In Daechuri, we were ushered into a warehouse where over 100 villagers
were holding a candlelight vigil. The most amazing thing about this vigil
is that it has been going on every evening for over two years! Rain or
shine, in the bitter winter nights or the sweltering summer evenings,
the vigil is a constant. It's a way for the residents and their
supporters to come together and renew their commitment to keep trying—despite
the odds—to save their village.
The vigilers, mostly elderly farmers, broke out in applause when we entered
the room. While the U.S. military is scheduled to obliterate their village
by the end of the year to expand its base at Camp Humphries, the villagers
welcomed the solidarity from Americans. They laughed and clapped wildly
when we ended our introductions with a popular Korean slogan we'd
learned on the bus ride from Seoul, which sounds like “Georgie Bushie
Chigura Donada”, or “George Bush, leave this planet!”
After the vigil, we were taken to several abandoned homes to spend the
night and in the morning, we awoke to see what had once been a prosperous
farming community. The land was flat and rich, spanning out across the
horizon in neatly divided golden rice fields. The rice grown in this region
is legendary for its high quality and commands a good price on the market.
With much hard work over generations, the Pyongtaek farmers—who
are both men and women—had been able to build middle class communities.
For farmers in poor countries, these homes would look like mansions. They
had electricity, running water, “ondol” (the traditional Korean
under-floor heating system), and spacious living quarters. The home we
stayed in had three bedrooms, two baths, a hearty kitchen and a spacious
sitting area with a lovely inlaid wood ceiling.
But on May 4, 2006 the South Korean government, using the power of eminent
domain, sent in over 20,0000 troops to demolish dozens of homes and the
public school the villagers had so lovingly built for their children.
So far, 81 homes have been demolished, and the 147 remaining homes are
scheduled to be bulldozed by the end of 2006. And in November, 2006, in
a further effort to drive the residents out, the Korean military built
trenches and laid miles of razor wire fencing to keep the villagers from
For over three years now, the villagers and their supporters have been
fiercely resisting eviction. They organized a tractor tour around the
entire country, set up huge rallies of up to 10,000 people, and went on
hunger strikes. They even chained themselves to the roofs of their homes
to keep the bulldozers at bay. In the process, they've faced brutal
police violence and repression. Over 1,000 people have been injured and
over 800 people arrested. On November 3, 2006, Ji-Tae Kim, Dachuri village
leader and Director of the Residents Committee against US Base Expansion,
was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “obstructing
“The South Korean government is supposed to be democratic,”
said Father Moon, a Catholic priest who has been supporting the villagers,
“but it has beaten and jailed the villagers, demolished their homes,
stolen their land by erecting a barbed-wire blockade to keep them from
their fields—all to expand a U.S. military base that the people
don't need or want. It's shameful.”
The expansion is part of the first major relocation and consolidation
of U.S. troops in Korea since the armistice that ended the Korean War
in 1953. The U.S. and South Korea government came to an agreement to move
U.S. forces stationed in Seoul and the demilitarized zone and consolidate
them in two "hubs" in Pyongtaek and Pusan, both south of Seoul.
The move changes the role of US forces in Korea from a defensive posture
against North Korea towards a more flexible, rapidly deployable force
for the wider Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. military refers to this as
"strategic flexibility". The total number of troops will be
lower—from 37,000 to 25,000 by 2008—but its technological
capabilities will be enhanced.
The move to Pyeongtaek will put U.S. troops outside North Korea's
missile range, and the upgraded weaponry is designed to make the US military
more efficient and better prepared for war with North Korea.
But many South Koreans we encountered feel that the expansion of US military's
role is a provocation to North Korea, increases the tensions on the peninsula,
and acts as a deterrent to the peaceful unification of North and South
Korea. They also wonder why the U.S. needs to take up so much land for
the Camp Humphreys base expansion if the U.S. troops are being reduced
by 12,000. The Camp Humphreys base has already gobbled up 3,685 acres
of prime farmland, and with the expansion it will almost double to 6,535
acres. Farmers were further angered when they discovered that part of
their confiscated land will be used for an extensive leisure center for
American soldiers, including an 18-hole golf course!
Prior to leaving the U.S., our delegation had requested a meeting with
U.S military commander in South Korea General B.B. Bell or another appropriate
representative to talk about the implications of the base expansion. Unfortunately,
the meeting was denied. After seeing first-hand the devastating effects
of the planned expansion on the Daechuri villagers, however, we decided
to go directly to the base in Seoul to ask the U.S. military to reconsider
our request for a meeting.
Instead of agreeing to a dialogue, the American officials closed the
base gate, which is normally open for pedestrian traffic, and blocked
our path with riot police. When we protested our exclusion, the military
issued a terse memo saying, “While we respect and defend the right
of American and Korean citizens to express their opinions, we have no
specific statement in response to today's impromptu protest.”
While our own U.S. military refused to meet with us, our friends in the
village showered us with hospitality and kindness. They even painted a
Cindy Sheehan/CODEPINK plaque and placed
it outside an abandoned house that they designated as an international
peace center. Kim Suk Kyung, father of imprisoned village leader Kim Ji-Tae,
told us as we were leaving the village: "Many of us are elderly and
this is the only home we know. We are determined to live and die in our
village, and that's why we need your help. Please go back home and
tell your government to let us live here in peace."
Our delegation is returning to the United States determined to raise
awareness and funds for the villagers, and to call on our new Congress
to hold investigations into the U.S. military realignment in Korea. The
expansion of the base will not enhance the security of the people of the
United States or South Korea, but will only fuel militarization in the
region and anti-American sentiment among those who believe, as we do,
that the Pyongtaek villagers, who have been farming these lands for generations,
deserve to stay there.
Medea Benjamin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is cofounder of
Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace.
To support the Korean villagers, go to www.codepinkalert.org.