Last week the president voiced the absurd notion that U.S. forces might remain in Iraq for decades, as in South Korea. Here is a view from an activist who just recently returned from a peace conference in South Korea…
by Anne Miller, Director, New Hampshire Peace Action
Last weekend, Japanese and South Korean peace activists held their first joint peace and disarmament conference in Seoul, South Korea. About two hundred peace activists gathered at Seoul University to build cooperation and solidarity between activists from the two countries. The conference also presented the opportunity for both Japanese and Korean hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) to share their stories and their struggles with one another – many for the first time.
The conference signified a growing coordination among East Asian activists in the struggle for denuclearization and resistance to U.S. military bases in the region. Represented were the two largest Japanese peace organizations, Gensuikyo and Gensuikin, and South Korea’s largest environmental non-governmental organization, Korean Federation for Environmental Movement. Other South Korean groups taking part included the National Association of Professors for Democratic Society and the Asian Wide Campaign against U.S.-Japanese domination and aggression of Asia-Korea.
The East Asian Peace Conference Against War, Nuclear Proliferation was jointly organized in response to North Korea’s October 2006 nuclear test. However, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator, received but passing mention during the many presentations and discussions. Instead, the United States was repeatedly posited as the greatest direct threat to the region’s security. “America” was referred to hundreds of times over the course of the conference, often in frustration and anger.
Japanese and Korean activists are deeply concerned that South East Asia is on the brink of a new nuclear proliferation that threatens the region’s collective security. Their concerns, accentuated by the North Korean test, focus on both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
There was general consensus at the conference that North Korea now has nuclear weapons, and that a nuclearized North Korea could create a domino effect in East Asia with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan following suit. There are influential conservative voices within South Korean government, as well as those in the Japanese government, who would like to exploit North Korea’s test to acquire “nuclear sovereignty.” Using defensive posturing, they actually advocate an offensive nationalist position. Increased in-state uranium enrichment will likely be a first step in the process, with the goal being the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.
Japan, which promotes a hawkish foreign policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has recently made noises about a nuclear weapons program. Washington has looked the other way. A reprocessing plant is currently under construction that could produce large quantities of plutonium by the end of the 2007. This is of great concern to the South Korean activists, who are equally focused on the abolition of nuclear power and weapons. With increased uranium enrichment, the line between power and weapons becomes more and more blurred, leaving the door wide open to regional proliferation. For the South Korean activists, the only answer to stopping nuclear weapons proliferation is to work towards a ban of nuclear power.
There was consensus that denuclearization must begin with changes in U.S. policy in the region. One South Korean woman, an activist from a Seoul-based group Women Making Peace, had just returned from meeting with North Korean women in P’yongyang as part of an ongoing cultural exchange program. She testified to the brutal effects that the economic sanctions are having on the citizens there as well as their longing for reunification. She called for the economic sanctions demanded by the U.S. to be lifted.
The U.S. has threatened North Korea with nuclear attacks more than any other country; the “military first” policies of Kim Jong Il can be best understood in this context. P’yongyang withdrew from the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993 after the Clinton Administration shifted some of its nuclear weapons targets from Russia to North Korea. From the North Korean perspective, the need for nuclear weapons was reinforced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Washington’s policies – both its enormous military presence on the peninsula and its aggressive posturing towards P’yongyang, were seen as the driving force behind North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
There have been rumors of several coup attempts, as well as efforts to assassinate Kim Jong Il – both by high-ranking members in the North Korean military. This potential instability has increased regional anxiety.
The South Korean activists also called on Japan’s government to hold direct talks with P’yongyang and supported the general framework of the “Sunshine Policy” set forth in 2000, when the two Korean heads of state, Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung, met for the first time since the U.S. divided Korea in 1945. The policy aims to unify both Koreas into a single confederation over several decades during which the political systems and leadership would remain separate as trade and cultural exchanges begin to take place. Although many young South Koreans appear to be indifferent on the subject of reunification, many older citizens have been seeking a resolution to the conflict for more than a half-century since the end of the Korean War.
Following the conference, participants visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a euphemism for one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world. It is the physical manifestation of the north-south rift and the continuing reality of the Cold War. Looking north to the North Korean demarcation line just two kilometers away, the percussion of practice shots from South Korean soldiers could be felt and heard. Although the South Koreans ostensibly patrol the DMZ, they are supported by tens of thousands of U.S. forces at places like Camp Casey. Ironically, outside Camp Casey, a monument of a Native American Indian greets U.S. soldiers’ families who come to visit.
After the trip to the DMZ, the Koreans and Japanese activists linked arms and sang songs of reunification, resistance and peace, including a tune called “Why Can’t I Take a Taxi to P’yongyang?”
Ousting the Americans
If you want to know where half a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars are going, you can find a good part of the answer in East Asia. In addition to denuclearization, the issue of U.S. military bases in the region was of paramount concern to activists. These bases – numbering in the hundreds – are an ongoing source of anger for many citizens living in both countries. As a result, popular resistance to them continues to grow.
Activists shared stories and made the call to band together against the U.S. government in removing U.S. bases from Japanese and Korean soil. Several of their activities include struggling to prevent U.S. nuclear submarines from entering the port at Kobe, Japan, and to prevent the South Korean government from removing farmers from their land to allow the U.S. to enlarge a base in the Pyeongtaek area as part of the U.S. military alignment in the region.
At the close of the conference, attendees joined a demonstration of several hundred in front of the U.S. base Yongsan, which is located downtown Seoul. Behind the demonstrators’ staging was a banner printed with the face of the commander of U.S. Army forces in South Korea, General B.B. Bell. “WANTED” was stamped in bold red letters across his nose and cheek. After the demonstration, activists pasted messages up on the twenty or so staffed police buses that lined the edge of the base as policemen surreptitiously photographed the protestors.
The message? “Yankees Go Home.” Some even said “please.”
To the north of Seoul, more resistance could be found in the town of Dongducheon, where two fifteen-year old girls, Mi-sun and Shin Hyo-soon, were run over and killed on their way to a birthday party in 2002 by a U.S. Army vehicle. Because of agreements between the South Korean and U.S. governments, the soldiers who killed the girls were never prosecuted by any Korean authorities and escaped any reprimand. The U.S. military erected a monument to the girls to try to quell outrage that spread quickly throughout the region, and called their “passing” a “tragic accident.” Many Koreans are still outraged that the U.S. has never taken any responsibility for the girls’ deaths. There is a citizen’s movement to take down the monument and replace it with one from the townspeople. Graffiti marring the current monument includes words like “dishonor” and “hypocrisy.”
Both Korean and Japanese activists recognized the conference as a successful first step in a long-term relationship. One Japanese attendee, who said he’d been working for peace for forty-two years, called it “historic.” A shared troubled history on the peninsula runs both deep. Japan occupied Korea from 1905-1945 and many Koreans – like many Americans – mistakenly believe the cultural myth that the atomic bombs were justified because they ended the Japanese occupation of Korea. Additionally, activists from both countries expressed consternation at Japan’s increasing militarism and close relationship with the United States and called on Japan to work with Asia instead of the U.S.
One of the most powerful parts of the conference were the testimonials of survivors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hibakusha – so precious to the Japanese peace movement – described their continuing struggle for recognition and compensation from the Japanese government for their suffering. Their presence served a potent reminder of the genocidal nature of nuclear weapons. One hibakusha reminded us that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still happening because of present-day nuclear testing, nuclear power accidents, and the use of depleted uranium. The only way for human beings to survive, he said, is to keep telling our stories.
And for the citizens and governments of the world to listen.