Jeju and Easter’s Challenge against Empire
Written by Derek Duncan
As we move through Holy week, Derek Duncan, Program Associate for Global Advocacy and Education, reflects on the following question: As Easter people what have we to say to the forces of empire today?
Jeju and Easter’s Challenge against Empire
Part of the story of Holy Week is how the forces of the Roman Empire conspired against the Prince of Peace in the last days. It is not only a lesson of history, but it is central to the witness of Jesus that we should exercise faithfulness to God and justice toward all people in the face of whatever powers, principalities and structures of violence would dominate and divide us. Global Ministries is blessed to be in partnership with many communities around the world who continue to demonstrate a faithful witness against such forces today.
The residents of Jeju Island off the southern coast of South Korea are such an example. For months protests have been building against the construction of a new naval base on Jeju in the village of Gangjeong. Given historic security agreements between the U.S. and Republic of Korea, analysts surmise Korea is building the deepwater base at the behest of the U.S. military. However locals from the area around Gangjeong oppose the militarization of their serene island and the threat to the environment and to their distinct culture that the base poses. Protesters have reached out to allies throughout Korea, including our Korean church partners, to ask the international community to join them in protesting the base and the escalating arms race throughout the region.
The villagers of Gangjeong have repeatedly rejected the decision to build the base adjacent to their homes and on land Koreans have long regarded as a national treasure for its natural and cultural significance. Jeju Island was listed in 2007 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its beautiful landscape is marked by unique rock formations and fragile ecosystems. Traditional practices like the haenyho women who dive while holding their breath under water are distinctive to the island culture. A major lava-formed rock structure juts into the sea beside Gangjeong and has been revered by Koreans as a sacred site for pilgrimage and devotion. But the Gureombi or “Living” Rock has been cordoned off and access to it restricted by the military for construction of the base.
The government’s treatment of protestors has led to charges of human rights violations by the Asia Human Rights Commission. Christine Ahn, columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus, has reported that "[t]he government and construction contractors are attempting to stamp out the outcry by arresting, beating, fining, and threatening villagers and activists." This attack on dissent echoes a dark moment in Korea’s history, the government’s massacre in 1948 of over 30,000 Jeju residents in an attempt to put down a popular uprising against the division between North and South Korea. In 2005 the late President Roh Moo Hyun declared Jeju an “Island of World Peace” in commemoration of the event, making the current dispute over the military base and official crackdown a tragic irony.
But the Jeju Island controversy represents a larger drama being played out in the age-old struggle against the forces of empire. Why does the U.S. want South Korea to build this new naval base? U.S. foreign policy is undergoing a major “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, heralding what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called “America’s Pacific Century.” Under pretext of defense against North Korea, the Gangjeong naval base is at the forefront of a U.S. strategy of increased militarization designed to counterbalance China’s growing economic and military sphere of influence. Not only does Jeju put the most advanced U.S. military might on China’s doorstep, but it is the top edge of a new U.S. theatre of military operations that includes a new U.S. Marine base in Australia, increased troop rotations through the Philippines, and pressure on Japan to increase military funding and cooperation with U.S. bases in Okinawa.
During Holy Week we are invited to identify in our lives the powers and principalities that threaten war over peace and death over life. For many in the world this is not an act of spiritual imagination, but a matter of everyday struggle. The people of Jeju are right not only to want to protect the sanctity of their island, but to fear the threats of violence—indeed of nuclear war—being amassed around them. What is the role of the church in bearing witness to the Prince of Peace against the structures of violence amassing in the Pacific? As Easter people what have we to say to the forces of empire today?