Sewing & Dancing in Resistance on Jeju
A South Korean Peace Activist’s Perspective
By Jessica Reznicek
Wildflower is a longtime committed artist and activist I met while visiting the Gangjeong Village of Jeju Island, South Korea. She is from the mainland of South Korea, but has left her home and relocated to Gangjeong, where she lives in a container house and works as a full time peacemaker in opposition to the U.S. naval base currently being constructed in the small village.
Wildflower’s art has become a symbol of both the grief and joy shared by local villagers and peace activists here in Gangjeong. Through craft and dance she expresses both feelings of loss of the sacred Gureombi Rock which was destroyed during the construction of the naval base and joy generated from the close-knit peace community which resides here. Her art celebrates friendship and solidarity in the face of the ongoing struggle to demilitarize Jeju Island.
She quickly befriended me and Frank Cordaro, volunteering to give us daily lessons in Korean. She taught us how to say crucially important phrases in Korean such as “good morning,” “thank you very much,” “peace be with you,” and “hey Gureombi Rock, I love you.”
Wildflower has become my close and loving friend in the short time I have been in Gangjeong, and has generously agreed to an interview so that all of you folks back home have the opportunity to hear a strong voice in this courageous struggle.
On a final note, I would like to give a big shout-out to another dear friend I have made here in Gangjeong. Without Jungjoo’s fantastic interpreting skills this interview would have never been possible. Thanks Jungjoo!
You are from the mainland of South Korea, correct? What inspired you to leave your home and join the struggle against the construction of the U.S. naval base being built in Gangjeong?
Yes, I am from the mainland of South Korea. Father Mun texted me that he was going to Gangjeong, and asked if I would come along. I came here on a three-day trip, but when I was here I saw Gureombi Rock for the first time and I saw that it was so beautiful. I felt that if it was covered by this base I could not bear it. I then set up a tent and started to live there.
This was before the construction of the base had officially begun. My tent was set up on a path leading to Gureombi Rock, the purpose being to block progress. I lived in that tent on Gureombi Rock for two months, until a police crackdown took place and the tent where I lived was thrown away by the police. I was then sent to a detention center. I wrote a message on the tent that said this is personal property and if somebody were to take it I would sue. When I was released from the detention center, a person who had found my tent tangled in a fence returned it to me. I resumed my life living in the tent,but eventually I couldn’t make it any longer. I got sick for a while and couldn’t live in a tent for a while, and other things happened that brought me to live in this container.
So, to answer your question, it is simply to say that I am here because of Gureombi Rock.
How long have you been working as a peace activist? How long in Gangjeong?
I have been here in Gangjeong for five years, but have been working as a peace activist all over South Korea for about 12 years total. The former issues I have worked on are about the expansion of a U.S. military base located in Pyeontaek City. Also, I have been a part of other movements and have stood in solidarity with other groups of people who are oppressed by the government. I stood in solidarity with the workers who were laid off by Ssangyong Motor Company. I also stood with the people of the Yongsan District in Seoul—their place was uprooted by the State. I would say that I have been actively working against militarism and capitalism for 12 years.
How do you perceive U.S. involvement in South Korea?
I don’t think my country is an independent country. Stating it simply, we were colonized by Japan, and now we have been colonized by the U.S. The April 3rd massacre and also the uprising of May 18th in Gwangju, they were all done by the U.S. And of course, now everything happening here in Gangjeong the U.S. is responsible for as well. In South Korea there are more than 90 U.S. Army bases and if you include facilities there are many, many more.
How does the construction of this U.S. naval base serve to impact the way of life here on Jeju Island?
Definitely I think that the completion of this project is not the end, there should be something more coming up. As if the base were a cell of cancer, it is contagious and spreads out. More and more houses will be removed, the native people will become displaced, and the community will be replaced with bars and prostitution. In the same way we have seen this happen in the past with the building of other U.S. bases in South Korea. Also, in another nearby city an airfield airbase will be built. A lot of people ask us, “So the construction is almost done, what are you guys still doing here?” Although we know we already have cancer we do not stop trying to cure it. Likewise, we know there is more to do. I want to do the most that I can do.
Not just in the form of changing physical structures does the building of the base threaten Gangjeong, but in the form of energy as well. Just as a physical fence encompasses the base, so too does an invisible
fence of negative, evil energy. This negative energy can spread also, and it poses a threat to the purity and beauty alive in this village today. Our job is also to counteract this bad energy with positive energy.
A lot of people nowadays are afraid of coming to visit Gangjeong Village. Gangjeong is quite well known for its struggle, but in spite of this fact still people are coming to visit. It will never stop. The visitors feel sorry for us and feel helpless that they cannot join us in the struggle, and I tell them that I am doing these things and I will continue fighting. I want other people to know Gangjeong is not a dangerous or scary place. What I want them to know is that there are so many wonderful people and I want to tell their stories through the making of my dolls. So when people come here I hope that they feel comforted by seeing the beautiful murals and my craft room. At first people get uncomfortable because of the tension in the community, but I try to ease people through art, painting flowers and sewing dolls.
I have only been in Gangjeong for a few weeks, but I see you every single day for Mass at the naval base gate. What drives you to keep showing up every single day? Where does your endurance and dedication to this struggle come from?
In the past, before the construction was happening, I stayed at the gate for 24 hours a day. All day long. At that time there were two groups, two shifts, daytime and nighttime, but I stayed through the entire time. So that shows how much I was eager to stop the construction, but I have been arrested nine times, and in the course of the struggle the presidential administration changed. A new president was elected and activists were told we had better be careful. Before we were being released fairly quickly, but now they have begun sentencing us. Nowadays, I would say that the only place where direct action or struggle is happening is during Mass at the gate. This is why I go, although I am not a Catholic. I go because this is where the resistance is happening.
As you watch the construction of the base become more and more developed each day, how do you overcome discouragement?
I try not to watch it. At some point the fence grew all the way down to the water, the fences were put up. Also, we lost Gureombi and I cannot watch the development of this base take that direction. Actually it is not easy at all. Every day I watch the buildings going higher and I feel very discouraged. It is very hard.
My colleague Sung-Hee told me one day that the military housing department for military personnel was completely built. And then she turned toward the base and said “You guys continue building, and when
you are all finished we will use those buildings for our University of Peace.” Around that time we were disappointed by the newly elected president, and Brother Sung, another colleague of mine, said our next mission is to make Jeju Island a demilitarized island. I realized that I had gotten so discouraged by seeing such a small thing, but my colleagues had a long view of the future and that helped me to get over it.
In a practical way, in a daily setting, another way for me to overcome discouragement is by sewing. If I concentrate on sewing I don’t happen to see the police. The action of sewing itself is similar to meditation. It kind of calms me down, especially in dealing with anger. It continuously helps me in the process of healing my wounds and healing the wounds of others. Also, in the end I can have the artwork in my hands. My sewing comes in the form of artwork. And then I sell them to make money to support
One more thing that helps me is dancing. I have a story about dancing. One time an art therapist visited the village and she followed me so as to understand the daily schedule so that she could start the process. At the end of the day we used to have a candlelight vigil and we would dance. She saw this and said to us that we were already engaged in the healing process. In Gangjeong, sometimes we still want to cry more than we want to laugh, but nonetheless, after we dance I always feel lightened.
Having committed your entire life to stopping this base from being built, in your opinion why are there some people in South Korea who are pro-base?
A lot of people say it is for the sake of national security and that we don’t know when North Korea will attack. All of the bases in Korea, actually, they are supposed to be used to protect South Korea, so it is all tied in with the division of Korea. Even the education system has been influenced a lot by this ideology, so that many people are educated against North Korea. The U.S. government has backed all of the bases that exist in Korea. The aim is to solidify them, make them strong, so that they do not close.
Also, one thing kind of dominant in Korean society is the mentality that people think if you remove the top of a mountain to build something, that this is development, and that development is always good.
During your participation in peace work here in Gangjeong, what role have police officers played in the peace movement?
Without the police the naval base cannot be built. It is impossible to count how many times they use violence. One example, they were wearing gloves but on the gloves there was something, sort of like small spikes, that easily scratched our skin. Especially when we were sitting holding each other’s arms, when they drug us apart, they would deeply cut our skin. Often then it would rain and become so painful. Even I myself experienced violence to the point that I couldn’t move my arm for months. I was hurt so badly that I thought I would never dance again. Every day I gave myself acupuncture treatments, so today I think it is a miracle that I can dance. We demanded that the police change their gloves, and to please
use some made of cotton.
Sometimes it feels as though activists and police officers come from completely different worlds, as well as pro-base and anti-base people. Do you think it is possible that something could help us to bridge this gap between one another so that we could all begin working toward peace together? If so, what would that be?
Before, for a while, almost every morning between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. the siren was ringing in the village. Immediately we would go out and go to the gate and stay there all day long. It was very cold, freezing, so once we got there we began to dance the Gangjeong dance. One day, it was so freezing that we danced the same dance three times in a row. I have heard from the people of Gangjeong who are involved in the struggle that I am more determined than the Navy. One day I biked to the gate, and when I arrived someone was just about to turn on the CD player. When the music was turned on I saw a police officer start to dance. So we happened to see each other, the police officer was dancing in the dark, and how embarrassed he was when he saw me watching him. And then he looked at my eyes and asked me directly if I was a professional dancer. The police even gave me a tip about creating a new kind of dance, in a style that is becoming very popular right now. This was very impressive to me.
I also have a story about the police and one of our dogs. Her name was Peace. When the dog was a little, little puppy it was so cute and I intentionally took the dog with me to the gate in the morning because everybody loved her so much and wanted to play with her and pet her and one day a police officer wanted to greet the puppy.
Of course I treat police officers as equal human beings, and I know that they are ordered to do what they do. The longer I stay here the more I realize that the police, they consider themselves professionals, and they do what they do because that is what they want to do. They want to feel comfortable with what they are doing by not disobeying.
Myself, I suffer a lot because of what the police did to me. They tell lies easily, and because of their lies I went to court. I should have done community service instead of going to prison. So I don’t trust the police, the group itself. But still I try to invite them to our actions. Every day before we start dancing, I say on the microphone, “Police, please join us!”