Anti-Base Movements in South Korea: Comparative Perspective on the Asia-Pacific

Much recent discussion on anti-base opposition in the Asia-Pacific has focused on island-wide protests against the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma.1 By uniting in mass demonstrations against the construction of a new U.S. base, and by staging a multi-year round the clock demonstration at the proposed site of the new base, Okinawans put pressure squarely on Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to keep his campaign pledge to move Futenma air base off the island.2 However, shortly after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which South Korea and the U.S. charge was the work of a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine, Hatoyama reversed his pledge. The Japanese government bowed to U.S. pressure, agreeing to move forward with earlier plans to relocate Futenma within Okinawa to smooth over U.S.-Japan relations.

Recent scrutiny of U.S.-Japan base realignment and Okinawan anti-base opposition has overshadowed U.S. military issues in South Korea. As others have argued, the struggle in Okinawa represents only one facet of the larger global struggle against U.S. bases.3 While this article focuses on U.S. base issues in South Korea, base relocation issues in the Asia-Pacific are linked together by U.S. strategic plans for the region, and more broadly, U.S. global force posture and realignment.4 They are also linked by the growing international network of anti-base forces that has spread across the Pacific and beyond. It thus makes sense to put South Korean anti-base movements in comparative perspective with ongoing base issues in Okinawa and Guam.

This article is divided into three sections. The first section provides an overview of two major South Korean anti-base movement episodes of the past decade. The second section compares the effectiveness of the two campaigns. The third section then assesses anti-base movements and U.S. military issues in light of other developments taking place in the Asia-Pacific.

Organized Anti-Base Opposition in South Korea

While Okinawa’s anti-base tradition is well-known and documented among activists and scholars, South Korea’s anti-base movements have received little attention.5 Whereas anti-base opposition is embedded deep within Okinawan political history, anti-base sentiments in South Korea linger at the fringe of politics, only on occasion moving to the center, as in the 2002 presidential elections.

Scholars generally identify the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980 as an important moment in the history of anti-American (and anti-base) resistance in South Korea.6 While anti-American attitudes existed in South Korea even before 1980, particularly among groups inspired by Marxist ideology and pro-unification groups influenced by national liberation (NL) ideology, such sentiments did not necessarily lead to organized, systematic movements against U.S. military presence.

Public perceptions became more critical of U.S. bases following the widely publicized brutal rape-murder case of Yoon Geumi in 1992.7 USFK-related crimes were more fully reported and taken more seriously as civic groups pushed for revisions to the unequal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which critics charged protected Americans against prosecution for crimes against Koreans. Local NIMBY protests existed prior to this point, but only in the mid-1990s did civic groups at the national level attempt to form a broader coalition movement to contain or eliminate U.S. bases. In 1997, national civic groups joined forces with local residents across different regions where U.S. bases existed to form the Pan-National Solution Committee to Return U.S. Bases. The movement demanded the reduction and eventual return of U.S. bases in South Korea, as well as the restoration of sovereignty rights, peace, and reunification. Although small in scale, the loose coalition did bring together actors from peace, women, student, and labor groups on the common theme of opposition to U.S. bases.8

Despite the formation of the Pan-National Committee to Return U.S. Bases, most anti-base movements, led by local NGOs, continued to focus on regional issues. However, in early 1999, the Kim Dae-Jung Administration publicly raised the issue of SOFA revisions. Local anti-base coalition movements in Kunsan and Daegu, and NGOs in Seoul such as the National Campaign to Eradicate Crimes by U.S. Troops, viewed Foreign Minister Lee Joung-bin’s public statement calling for SOFA revisions as an opportunity to broaden their coalition. In addition to base-related issues, SOFA revisions encompassed other issues such as the environment, labor, safety, and women’s rights, injecting new energy into the coalition. Sensing a change in the political climate in Korea, anti-base activists and NGO leaders from various sectors established the broad-based coalition People’s Action for Reform of the Unjust SOFA (PAR-SOFA) in October 1999 to push Washington and Seoul for substantive SOFA revisions.9

Protests Against Kooni Firing Range

At the height of PAR-SOFA’s protests, a USFK accident at Kooni Firing Range in Maehyangri triggered the formation of a second coalition, this time linking local residents and nationally-oriented activists.10 Although the early release of six bombs following an aircraft malfunction did not result in any fatalities, the accident again highlighted the hazards of hosting U.S. bases. The Maehyangri incident added fuel to anti-USFK sentiment.

PAR-SOFA initially functioned as the organizing body, acting as a broker between the local resident committee and a wide array of civic groups, most notably labor and student groups. These “outside groups” used the SOFA revision and Maehyangri incident to press the South Korean government on U.S. military issues. Activists participated in a variety of activities such as protest marches, letter writing campaigns, festivals, and street performances in Seoul and Maehyangri. Militants illegally entered the firing range by cutting through barbed wire. In fact, the single most effective tactic was the physical occupation of Kooni Firing Range. This forced USFK to suspend all training activities.

To enhance organizational capacity, local and national movement leaders formed a coalition campaign specifically demanding the closure of Kooni Firing Range. On June 30, residents and activists formally launched the National Solution Committee to Abolish the Maehyangri Air Force Training Range. Local residents recognized that their struggle would never carry weight at the national level without the wider participation of civic groups and NGOs.11 Maehyangri movement leaders acknowledged the significance of this new coalition. According to one leader affiliated with Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea (SPARK), solidarity between residents and activists aided the broader anti-base struggle in three ways. First, it helped transform a local movement into a “larger, more continuous, national movement.”12 Second, it brought further attention to USFK-related problems. Third, the involvement of national civic groups helped instill a sense of national consciousness that the government could not easily ignore.

Of course, tension over movement direction and strategy existed between local and national groups. For instance, local Maehyangri resident leader Chun Mankyu acknowledged that villagers were more concerned about government compensation and noise reduction than the larger political agenda brought by outside civic groups. Among others, this larger political agenda included demands for equality in U.S.-ROK relations, and peace and reconciliation with North Korea. One strategy which helped mitigate this tension between the local and national movements was the anti-base coalition’s adoption of a framing strategy focused on injustice and suffering of local residents. In particular, the coalition highlighted the hazards and excessive noise generated by Kooni Range.13

Continued protests and physical occupation of the firing range by residents and activists prolonged the suspension of USFK training exercises. South Korean officials found themselves in a diplomatic bind. According to South Korean defense officials, residents did not understand the complex issues that required keeping Kooni Range operable.14 The South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) proposed two options to resolve growing tensions, which essentially boiled down to relocating either the training site or the residents. The MND initially preferred relocating residents, but due to budget constraints and opposition from residents, the MND abandoned this idea. After several weeks of negotiation between U.S. and South Korean officials, in August 2000, the MND announced several partial measures including relocating the range 1.5 km off the coast toward a tidal flat near Nong Island and discontinuing the use of live ammunition. Citing limitations to USFK training requirements, in 2004, USFK closed Kooni Firing Range, and in 2005 relocated training operations to Chik-do Island.15

Protests Against the Expansion of Camp Humphreys

Anti-base protests resumed in 2004, coming on the heels of the 2002-03 candlelight vigils for two junior high school girls run over and killed by a U.S. armored vehicle, and demonstrations against the dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq.

Amids USFK transformation and base realignment and consolidation in South Korea, local residents and activists once again joined forces to oppose the expansion of Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. Figure 1 below indicates which bases were slated for closure and consolidation, emphasizing the closure of bases in and around Seoul and the opening of new bases in the far south.

The expansion included relocating USFK headquarters from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul to Pyeongtaek, as well as the consolidation of the 2nd Infantry Division to the Osan-Pyeongtaek area.16

USFK relocation plans called for tripling the size of Camp Humphreys.17 Local residents in Daechuri and Dodori, the two villages most affected by base expansion, were particularly alarmed. Not only was their livelihood as rice farmers threatened, but for the elderly, USFK base expansion meant being uprooted from their homes for a second or third time as a result of foreign base expansion (following the Japanese colonial era and the Korean War). Additionally, activists cited the lack of transparency and democratic process during negotiations between Seoul and Washington.

In May 2004, Father Mun Jeong Hyeon, a leading figure in South Korea’s peace movement, met with leaders of local Pyeongtaek anti-base groups and the Paengseong Residents’ Action Committee. The meeting proved fruitful as Mun, along with other prominent NGO leaders, pushed to unify a broad range of South Korean civic groups into a unified national campaign. What was originally a local movement in Pyeongtaek became a national struggle with 120 organizations including labor, student, women’s rights, farmer, human rights, peace, unification, and religious groups directly or nominally involved in the campaign. The bulk of the organizing was conducted by activists residing in or near Pyeongtaek, supplemented by peace activists representing national civic groups.

Anti-base activists used a variety of strategies to publicize the Pyeongtaek base relocation project and challenge the state. Most visible were three major protests organized in Pyeongtaek in July and December 2005, and in February 2006.

Additionally, activists sponsored press conferences and public forums, and they used visual media, art, music, and street theater to raise public awareness. The goal was to attract people who may not have necessarily shared the political views of anti-base activists, but who shared with the movement a sense of the primacy of human rights and justice. To maintain a community-based strategy, activists from national civic groups relocated to Pyeongtaek and “embedded” themselves in houses already vacated by residents.18 This action also served as a tactic to prevent the government from clearing the area for base construction. In solidarity with local residents, activists participated in the nightly candlelight vigils held in Daechuri.

Although the South Korean government had legally acquired the majority of base expansion land by the end of 2005, residents and activists squatting in abandoned homes prevented the MND from physically taking control of the land. Facing U.S. pressure and fearful of weakening the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the MND stepped up pressure to acquire land for base expansion. On several occasions in spring 2006, the MND sent workers to Daechuri village to erect barbed wire and prevent activists from entering the expanded base land. Residents and activists continued to resist. Preparing the nation for potential violence, on May 1, the South Korean Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense announced on national broadcast the dispatch of riot police to Pyeongtaek while explaining the necessity for U.S. base expansion. Three days later, the MND sent 2,800 engineering and infantry troops to dig trenches and set up barbed wire around the perimeter. The troops were accompanied by 12,000 riot police.19 As morning approached, riot police physically removed activists and students barricading themselves inside an elementary school used as a makeshift anti-base campaign headquarters. Meanwhile, activists and government forces clashed as activists broke through the barbed wire perimeter.

Although anti-base protests continued, by June 2006, various umbrella coalition groups, particularly labor and farmer groups, had shifted away from the anti-base movement to prepare for protests against the upcoming U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations.

The government again sent 15,000 riot police on September 13 to destroy empty homes where activists and a handful of residents were residing.20 In October 2006, workers began leveling the land for construction as the government continued negotiating with residents. The South Korean government and Daechuri residents finally signed an agreement on February 13, 2007, with the residents agreeing to move out by March 31 to a nearby village. While the village residents’ decision was made independent of the broader anti-base coalition, activists issued a statement stating that they would respect the agreement.21

Anti-base Movement Effectiveness: Internal Attributes

Both the Maehyangri and Pyeongtaek anti-base movements were initially successful in forming a broad-based coalition, attracting large numbers of activists from multiple movements, and drawing national media attention. In retrospect, the Maehyangri anti-base coalition was more effective in gaining concessions from Seoul and Washington than KCPT. Several reasons may account for these differences as internal movement dynamics and external circumstances varied while movement episodes unfolded. For instance, in Maehyangri, tactics such as illegally breaking into a USFK firing range to disrupt training exercises captured national attention and effectively pressured Seoul and Washington to consider concessions. Similar radical tactics in Pyeongtaek, however, resulted in violence, generating negative publicity for activists and revealing divisions within the movement. KCPT activists also cited greater momentum in anti-USFK sentiment in 2000 than 2005-2006. The Maehyangri issue erupted during a period of extra scrutiny regarding USFK issues. Seoul and Washington were in the middle of negotiating revisions to SOFA. The momentum in 2000, in short, favored civil societal actors, providing activists a favorable domestic political climate.

Additionally, even though activists cite greater solidarity between local residents and civic groups in 2005 than 2000, the pace of events in Maehyangri in 2000 required the coalition to act quickly. There was little room for debate.22 In Pyeongtaek, long delays between movement action and the government’s deliberate strategy of drawing out the negotiation process over time took a toll on KCPT. Movement fatigue had set in by 2006. This was compounded by the general weakening of South Korean social movements, stemming from corruption and in-fighting among labor unions, and a decline in South Korean student activism. KCPT was also competing for attention with other coalition movements by 2006, most notably anti-FTA mobilization.

Protests against base closure as opposed to base opening or expansion may have also affected movement framing. As one activist joked, some horrible accident or crime was needed to draw the nation’s attention to base-related problems.23 The public could easily connect the dots between low flying jets performing strafing exercises and the potential dangers confronted by nearby residents. On the other hand, stopping the expansion of an already existing base did not grab public attention in quite the same way as a campaign to shut down a noisy firing range.

External Attributes

Although anti-base movements may successfully mobilize, as witnessed in Maehyangri and Pyeongtaek, they may not be equally successful in shapingpolicy outcomes. More often than not, activists face significant structural constraints. In all anti-base movements, whether in Okinawa, South Korea, Guam or the Philippines, activists face great challenges when confronting U.S. base issues because political elites tend to prioritize robust alliance relations with the U.S. Whether a progressive or conservative-leaning government, regardless of who comes to power, political leaders in Tokyo and Seoul generally accept in principle the necessity for U.S. forces to provide regional stability in the mid- to long-term. A pro-U.S. consensus among political leaders and bureaucracies, particularly within the defense and foreign policy establishments, drowns out activist calls for an alternative security framework centered on a reduction of U.S. forces. This ideological constraint makes it difficult for anti-base movements to shift public discussion on U.S. base issues. Moreover, host governments constantly receive a mixture of political pressure and economic incentives to support U.S. alliance obligations. While some government elites are genuinely sympathetic to the plight of local residents, in most cases political and economic forces prevent these actors from executing policy changes that would significantly eliminate or ameliorate the negative effects of U.S. military presence.

For example, after the May 2006 clashes between activists and government forces, Prime Minister Han Myeong-Sook, a former activist herself, issued a much anticipated public statement in a live national broadcast. In her televised speech, she expressed regret and sadness for the previous weeks’ violence, and sympathy and concern for residents forced to relocate. However, taking the same position as the MND, the Prime Minister reiterated the importance of base relocation for maintaining positive bilateral relations with the United States.24

The Cheonan Incident and Implications for Anti-Base Protests

A pro-U.S. security consensus still ingrained in the national security perceptions of South Korean and Japanese elites continues to dominate strategic thinking in Seoul and Tokyo. Heightened tension with North Korea under the conservative Lee Myung-Bak regime has dampened the political climate for anti-base opposition and shaped Asian leaders’ perceptions of U.S. force posture and base realignment in South Korea. Although many South Koreans rebuked President Lee for his harsh response towards the North, the Cheonan incident has nevertheless reinforced this dominant security consensus.25

In South Korea, escalating tensions with North Korea even before the Cheonan incident had strengthened South Korean support for continued U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. In this environment, opposition to U.S. military initiatives ring hollow to the broader public compared to previous campaigns. For example, the emerging anti-base movement on Jeju Island earlier this year against the construction of a South Korean naval base capable of hosting two Aegis destroyers has been isolated primarily to Gangjeong village.26 Although the appeal of Gangjeong village’s mayor and residents have received significant attention from global anti-base activists in Okinawa, Japan, Guam, Europe, and the U.S., the movement has garnered relatively little attention in South Korea.

The Cheonan incident has also reinvigorated calls to delay the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United States to South Korea.27 Currently scheduled to take place in April 2012, the South Korean MND, as well as conservative forces in Seoul and Washington, have advocated delaying the transfer until 2015 after USFK completes its relocation process from Seoul to Pyeongtaek.28 The previous government and progressive NGOs supported transfer of OPCON to South Korea sooner rather than later. However, as East Asia Institute president Sook-Jong Lee argues, following the Cheonan incident, “public opinion began to shift toward the conservative view that Seoul is not ready to take on OPCON.”29 Proponents argue that OPCON’s transfer provides South Korea with greater independence when dealing with North Korea.

However, progressive leaders may also find grounds for supporting OPCON’s delay if it contributes to greater restraint on South Korean policies towards the North.

In Japan’s case, the Cheonan incident does not appear to have significantly swayed domestic attitudes regarding Futenma’s relocation. A Mainichi Shimbun opinion poll conducted on May 31 indicated only 41% of respondents favoring relocation to Henoko, whereas 52% stated they opposed the plan.30 However, Japanese political leaders, including the now disgraced former Prime Minister Hatoyama, suggest that the Cheonan incident underscored the importance of U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Initial signs suggest that Prime Minister Kan Naoto will attempt to follow through on his predecessor’s final decision to keep Futenma’s relocation within Okinawa. News reports following Kan’s first telephone conversation with President Obama indicate his acceptance of U.S. plans in relocating at least part of Futenma’s functions to Henoko. However, Prime Minister Kan will confront the same problem that his predecessors failed to resolve: strong Okinawan opposition to base construction on the island that has produced a formidable, sustained movement.

Conclusion: Towards a Comparative Perspective

Each anti-base episode retains its own local flavor as residents and activists confront the challenges of U.S. overseas bases. However, South Korean, Guahan (Guam), and Okinawan campaigns face similar constraints as host governments seek to balance domestic demands and pressure from the U.S. to maintain alliance responsibilities. This is not to minimize the achievements of anti-base movements. Anti-base campaigns in South Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Guam past and present have pushed host governments to at least justify why such a continued large U.S. military presence is still necessary, and in certain circumstances have won important concessions.31 In Guam, Governor Felix Camacho and Guam’s Congressional Representative Madeline Bordallo have shied away from unqualified support for additional U.S. Marines after the outpouring of public opposition to the planned expansion of U.S. bases.32 Activists have also forced greater public scrutiny on U.S. alliance-related policies, demanding greater accountability and transparency on issues which are often decided without public debate or explication under the cover of national security.

The U.S. plans to eventually relocate 8,000 Marines to Guam, as outlined in the 2009 “Guam International Agreement,” However, this is contingent on the DPJ following through on the U.S.-Japan plan to relocate Futenma air base to a newly built facility at Henoko.33 As argued above, recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula have bolstered U.S. and host government claims to maintain forces in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. bases are not independent units, but part of a network woven together by alliance ties in an effort to maintain U.S. regional hegemony. Recognizing that this strategic web affects base relocation from one locality to another (i.e. Okinawa to Guam), anti-base activists in Asia have moved to support local anti-base initiatives throughout the region.34

While it may be far-fetched to envisage elimination of all U.S. bases in the region anytime soon, anti-base resistance against Futenma is very much alive. Even though the DPJ aims to move forward with the Henoko plan, the past fifteen years of anti-base resistance in Okinawa suggests that the fate of Futenma’s relocation still remains open-ended. Henoko residents, with the support of Okinawan and Japanese activists, continue to resist. Okinawans continue to voice their opposition to base relocation in Okinawa. Strong protests on Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture amidst earlier rumors that Futenma would locate to this island also attest to the widespread opposition to U.S. bases by local actors in many communities.

The lessons of South Korean anti-base movements speak directly to ongoing movements in Okinawa and Guam. Base relocation to Guam entails additional live-fire training sites as in Maehyangri. The possibility of a missile defense system for Guam resonates with the potential inclusion of Aegis destroyers on Jeju Island’s future naval base. The expansion of Camp Schwab in Henoko, while extending into the sea rather than taking additional land, parallels the expansion of Camp Humphreys in South Korea.35 The links between military base issues in the Asia-Pacific, and the corresponding cross-national ties formed between anti-base actors are poignantly summarized in a September 2009 letter to President Obama following the Second East Asia International Symposium on Environmental Problems Caused by U.S. Military Bases. The executive committee of the symposium writes:

U.S. troops stationed near our dwellings are operating combat training in the name of the security of the Pacific-Asia region… Recently U.S. troops are expanding their bases and building new facilities under the cloak of “relocation.” If the new base constructions in Pyeongtaek, Henoko, Takae, and Iwakuni [and Guam] are completed, they will again take away our land, which provides our livelihood, and destroy our environment. As overseas US military bases are promoting new construction projects, we are about to lose our dwellings and even our seas.36

The anti-base center of gravity in the Asia-Pacific shifts as current events unfold. In the early 1990s, the Philippines commanded much attention. In the mid-1990s, Okinawa rose to the fore. In the post-9/11 period, U.S. global force realignment brought significant attention to South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. As the U.S. continues to reshuffle its military presence within and outside the Asia-Pacific region, scholars, activists, and policymakers will need to turn to comparative analyses to understand the full scale and scope of overseas base issues and anti-base movements.

Andrew Yeo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC. His research has been published in International Studies Quarterly, Comparative Politics (forthcoming), Peace Review, and Journal of East Asian Studies. He is completing his book manuscript, Yankee Go Home? Activists, Alliances, and Overseas U.S. Military Bases. He wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.