Jeju Island Activist Sung-Hee Choi Interviewed in Prison
(Pictured: Protesters obstructing construction trucks on Jeju Island.)
Last week, I had the honor of going to prison. I was conducting research on South Korea’s beautiful Jeju Island, off the country’s southern coast, and was lucky enough to be one of the two people per day allowed to speak with the renowned imprisoned activist Sung-Hee Choi.
Choi was arrested for her attempts to prevent the construction of a naval base in Jeju’s Gangjeong Village, a base that many suspect would become a new port for the U.S. Navy. Despite the opposition of people like Choi, who has repeatedly laid her body in front of construction equipment, the South Korean government has been trying to create a base on Jeju since at least 2002, on an island that South Korea has declared, no less, an “Island of Peace.” Twice already, protestors have forced the government to find another construction site.
In the newest site, Gangjeong, where thousands of tons worth of construction supplies sit near the water, the base would pave over a delicate and rare volcanic beachfront, endanger local marine life, and destroy the heart of a beautiful seaside village. For five years, Gangjeong’s people have been struggling to stop the base.
Over the weekend, hundreds of South Korean police started assembling around Gangjeong in what villagers feared would be an imminent attempt to evict them by force from their permanent seaside protest site. This week, after protestors chained themselves to trees to block a police front hoe, the arrival of several politicians appears to have reduced tensions and forced the police, at least temporarily, to halt their eviction plans.
The following are Sung-Hee Choi’s words from our conversation last Thursday. I have lightly edited the transcript for ease of reading. Tomorrow morning, I return to Jeju to monitor the ongoing standoff with Sung-Hee’s powerful words still fresh in my mind.
SUNG-HEE CHOI: The United States and South Korea use military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region that are aimed against China not North Korea. There is big evidence that the United States will want the Jeju naval base, even though this is officially denied every time: They say, “This is not a U.S. naval base. This is a South Korean base.” So this is really a trick. They are really deceiving people. There is no problem for the U.S. military to use it. First, the U.S. and South Korean mutual defense treaty, which was signed in 1954, allows the United States to use of all South Korean military facilities. Second, the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] facilities are really meant for the U.S. military. Third, the U.S. military strategic flexibility policy under which South Korea has allowed U.S. forces in Korea to assume expanding regional and global roles beyond deterring North Korea.
The United States military can clearly use any South Korean base.
It is not only the military, but also corporations like Samsung and Daerim that are benefiting from the building of the base. It is not only a military part, but also the commercial part. What I am afraid about is the entrance of fascism in the whole island.
DAVID VINE: Fascism?
SUNG-HEE: Yes, fascism. Yes. In the mainland, and now Jeju island is being dominated by Samsung.
A base on Jeju would be a tragedy for Jeju Island and its people, because of what they have already experienced in 1948, when the South Korean military massacred 40,000 [accused communists].
Jeju’s people’s history is one of struggling against outside powers: the United States and Japan. U.S. military weapons [were involved in the massacre] just a few years after the South Korean liberation from Japan. Jeju's own identity is constant. Jeju has been the victim of the outside powers.
Why are we still struggling? Not only for the environment, but also for the history of the Jeju island and South Korea, which have been struggling against the powerful countries.
Another thing that I am thinking is that, day by day, Jeju island is a red button for the United States military. The United States already occupies all of the region that it covets. The United States already occupies Hawai’i, Okinawa, Philippines—or, they used to. Now they want to occupy Jeju island. This is a peace island. This is for peace. Now the vision of the peace activists here is for keeping the island as a real peace island.
Brother Song [a fellow activist] and [former Jeju Governor] Shin Goo-beom have tried to find alternatives for villagers for how to develop Gangjeong village for our future generation. One option is to build a UN Peace School. They are all talking about this. And also the chairman and the villagers’ committee, they are all talking about this. That needs to be our vision. That needs to be our ultimate goal. That is a concrete vision to create a real peace school for future generations in Jeju island.
And I really hope that you can talk about how the villagers are suffering. How they love their hometown. I really hope that you will please communicate how the islands in the Asia-Pacific region are now a target of an empire base for the United States.
DAVID: Why do you think there are so many people who are so dedicated to the struggle? Like yourself. People willing to go to jail. People willing to go on hunger strikes. There are many anti-base movements but people seem to be very passionate, and I wonder why—either personally for yourself or for others—you think people are so dedicated, so strong in their opposition?
SUNG-HEE: As I have written before, I feel a responsibility to talk for the voiceless animals and creatures who cannot speak. Second, for our future generations who will be the victims of war if we don’t stop the base. I think the villagers love their hometown so much. It is their hometown. They love it so much.
It is about love. It is about a love that cannot speak. It is about the sea that cannot speak. It is about the creatures who cannot speak aloud. We are basically talking about, we are basically talking….
And then, an automated voice and background music abruptly cut Sung-Hee off, announcing that our time had expired and instructing visitors to leave quickly. Sung-Hee grabbed her pen and the scrap of paper next to her and furiously wrote a few final words. She held the paper briefly up to the glass between us before a guard took her away. The paper read:
It is about love for the people who cannot speak now.
It is about love.
David Vine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, and the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press).