ROCK MY SOUL
Times Record Op-Ed (Brunswick, Maine)
March 23, 2012
By Mary Beth Sullivan
The rocky sea cost of Maine has been a source of great solace for me. It knows my secrets, receives my tears, and cleanses my soul. It connects me to people around the world who come to the sea for solace. Today, it especially connects me to the people of Jeju Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Jeju also happens to be 300 miles from the coast of China, giving it strategic significance to my country’s military
On March 20, the multinational company Samsung, under contract with the South Korean Navy, plans to blast dynamite into the heart of an ancient, holy rock formation (Guroembi) in Jeju’s coastal community of Gangjeong. Destruction of Guroembi is the next phase in the effort to build a naval base at this southern coastal village.
The intent is for this naval base to dock U.S. nuclear submarines, Bath-built Aegis Destroyers, and aircraft carriers. President Barack Obama has declared a U.S. military “pivot” toward Asia, while China and the U.S. continue competing for the world’s oil, gas, and underground minerals.
The U.S. has a huge military presence in the Asia Pacific region already, and has an expressed goal of dominating militarily in all corners of the globe “to protect U.S. interests and investments.” A military base in Gangjeong will make Jeju Island a target in future geopolitical struggles between the U.S. and China.
For five years, Gangeong villagers have been fighting this naval base through political and legal means, while physically resisting each stage in the process. The navy has taken over people’s property; felled trees; destroyed greenhouses; built a fence preventing the village’s view or access to Guroembi, their ancient place of prayer.
Jeju is a volcanic island; Guroembi is unique. These living rocks have fresh water springs that lay beneath; colorful coral reefs that sit off shore; endangered red crabs that feed off these rocks. This eco system and the villagers – fishermen, women divers, farmers, lovers of nature – have had no voice in the decision to bury Guroembi in cement to build a naval base. They have been organizing for years to build community, to change the hearts and minds of decision-makers, and to prevent the destruction of their village.
The people also resist. When walls and razor wire prevent a walk to the Guroembi rocks, they kayak. When the kayaks are blocked, they swim. On March 19, I saw the photos of the many young people who, before dawn, went to the site where the dynamite is stored. They gathered with PVC pipes. They put their arms through the pipes to be connected to each other while preventing transport of the dynamite of destruction. Their eyes showed a gentle determination. It took hours, but their pipes were broken apart, and they are now in jail.
This nonviolent struggle also expresses a passionate commitment to a democratic process. The injustice of a navy’s dictate to confiscate land and expose an island to the vagaries of war in this 21st Century is an unacceptable control over people’s lives. The people refuse a quiet acquiescence.
I visited Gangjeong. I prayed on the Guroembi rocks. In our short time on Jeju Island, I got a glimpse of the determination and creativity the villagers have displayed over the years. We have been watching the videos from Gangjeong faithfully, of villagers and activists arrested for laying their bodies down in front of the wheels of the cement trucks, the cranes, the machines meant to blast holes deep into the heart of Gureombi. And, once released from prison, villagers lay their bodies down again.
I also visited Professor Yang Yoon-Mo who recently turned 56 in Jeju City prison. He is in jail for the second time in a year for putting his body in front of cement and construction trucks. The first time, he fasted for over 70 days. When I visited him in February, he was in his third week of another hunger strike. I can never express the emotion of the experience of hearing this gentle, holy man explain so clearly: “If Guroembi lives, I live; if Guroembi dies, I die. Do not cry for me, cry for the future generations who may not be able to know the beauty of Guroembi.”
I live in Bath, Maine. I want my neighbors to have union-jobs, health care, affordable higher education for their kids. But to continue to build more Aegis Destroyers supports our acquiescence to militarism as the 21st Century’s answer to our global problems. The skills and talents of my neighbors can and should be used to create the renewable energy infrastructure Maine needs to get beyond our oil-based heating and transportation systems. We have real problems that we can surely come together to solve in a way that employs people to preserve life and bring hope to the 21st Century. We can look to the courage of the Gangjeong Villagers for inspiration. Their facebook page is No Naval Base on Jeju. May they people Gangjeong win this struggle to save Guroembi, to save Jeju Island.
- Mary Beth Sullivan, a social worker, lives in Bath, Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org