Villagers Challenge U.S. Military in South Korea

In Pyongtaek, a small rice-farming town 31 miles south of Seoul, Korea, an extraordinary struggle is taking place. Villagers are refusing to hand over their land to the U.S. military, which plans to expand its base Camp Humphrey by three times and occupy 2,470 acres of prime farmland. The villagers didn’t imagine four years ago that their struggle would force policymakers to reassess the role of the U.S. military on the peninsula. But it has.

I recently traveled to Pyongtaek with 18 Americans, including U.S.-mom-turned-peace-activist Cindy Sheehan. Two hundred police in riot helmets and shields stopped our bus at the first of two heavily fortified checkpoints. Fortunately camera crews and journalists were on hand to capture Sheehan’s grand entry, otherwise we would have been denied access even though the National Human Rights Commission ruled the checkpoints illegal and in violation of the villagers’ human rights.

We joined over 100 villagers for their 811th consecutive vigil and heard from elders about the destruction and ongoing violence and harassment. Starting in May, over 20,000 armed riot police have repeatedly marched into the village with heavy machinery to bulldoze their homes and rice paddies. Each time, residents met the armed Korean military police with their bodies, some tying themselves to their roofs to save their homes. One elderly man in his 70s tucked his bony body in the nook of a backhoe. As the soldiers yanked him out, he pled, “This is where my children ran and played, where my ancestors are buried. My sweat is in these fields.”

Since the clashes began, the authorities have injured over 1,000 people and demolished 68 homes. They also destroyed the area’s only primary school, which Pyongtaek’s residents themselves built. To further drive them away, the military built trenches, poured concrete in irrigation canals, and laid miles of razor wire fencing to keep the farmers from getting to their fields. “I couldn’t allow the seeds we planted to die,” explained an elder farmer, “So we set up a human irrigation system passing water from bucket to bucket until our crops were watered.”

To further demoralize the villagers, the government sentenced their chief Kim Ji-Tae to prison for two years for obstructing civil affairs and leading demonstrations. Supporters who have poured in to serve as “human shields” say of Kim, “We didn’t know that a farmer from the countryside could be such a courageous fighter against the U.S. military and government repression.”

Kim’s poetic response to authorities at a public hearing has become legend. When Defense Ministry officials asked the price for his land, he replied, “The price will be unimaginably high. The price must include every grain of rice grown and harvested here. It must include all of our efforts to grow them, as well as our whole life here, including our sighs, tears and laughter. The price must include the stars, which have witnessed our grief and joy, and the wind, which has dried our tears.”

On November 30, Amnesty International designated Kim Ji Tae a prisoner of conscience. On December 28 he was freed.

The base expansion is part of the Pentagon’s 2003 Global Posture Review, which shifts the U.S. forces in Korea from their historic role of defending South Korea to a new capacity as a launching pad to strike regional enemies. The number of U.S. troops will be cut from 37,000 to 25,000 by 2009, and the existing 90 U.S. bases will be consolidated to two major hubs, Pusan and Pyongtaek. While most welcome the reduction, many oppose having to foot the $11 billion dollar bill for the move, military hardware and technology, especially since the deployment of U.S. forces in South Korea ought to be winding down now, 53 years after the Korean war. Many South Koreans see the base expansion as fueling tensions with North Korea and standing in the way of reunification.

Without specifically referring to Pyongtaek’s resistance, the South Korean defense ministry has announced that relocation plans would be delayed for five years because of construction problems. Although many South Koreans see the role of the U.S. military as good for securing regional stability, many view its continued presence as an affront to Korea’s independence.

Christine Ahn is a policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.