Another Vieques in South Korea:
One after another, US fighter planes roared directly over the treetops near where we were standing. It was like hell on Earth; definitely the most terrifying experience I'd ever had. Each time there were earsplitting, indescribable blasts of noise from the bombing and machine-gunning aimed at targets about one-half mile away. Those targets are just that, targets. They are not always, nor even usually, hit. Unbelievably, this has been going on every weekday for 50 years from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. Four hundred to 700 bombs are dropped each day by the A-10 and F-16 US fighter aircraft as they swoop over this deceptively serene and bountiful countryside. Nearby are 10 humble seaside farming villages, the closest one being Maehyang-ri, located barely one mile from the targets. The place is South Korea, about 50 miles south of Seoul on the west coast.
We were there last July 18-19, as part of a fact-finding delegation of the International Investigation Commission on US Military Massacres of Civilians and on the Maehyang-ri US Air Force Bombing Range, initiated by the Korea Truth Commission. One member of our delegation was Ishmael Guadeloupe, a leader of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, the island in Puerto Rico which is also being used as a bombing range by the US Navy.
Here in South Korea the targets for the bombs are islands in the beautiful bay, from which people and wildlife derive their livelihoods by fishing. One island has been entirely obliterated. Another, which had been three kilometers long, has been reduced to two-thirds its original size. Unexploded ordnance, undoubtedly thousands of tons, has accumulated everywhere in the bay, on the beaches and in the fields. Workers at the range clear out as much as they can after each day's practice. Brian Willson, a member of a previous delegation and an Air Force veteran who became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, observed that A-l0s are "tank-killers" which means they use depleted uranium (DU) shells. As a result of the uproar created by Willson, the military was compelled to admit they use DU at the Koon-ni Range at Maehyang-ri. This adds radioactive contamination to all the other toxic wastes and oil, including waste from napalm bombs accumulating in the environment. Through the years, at least 12 people have been killed and numerous others have been wounded by bombs that went astray.
Many bombs are found in the villages, and there are thousands on the hillsides surrounding the area. People's homes continue to be hit by the shooting. Bullets go through their windows. Cracks and pock marks are plainly visible in walls and roofs. When the flights finally stop for a while, villagers go to collect oysters. They frequently encounter unexploded bombs.
We visited one home in Maehyangl ri where a bomb landed on a home on May 8. An elderly resident of the house graciously agreed to let all of us traipse through her modest farm home, past drying herbs and farm animals, to see the hole in the roof of her garage and the bomb itself.
The constant bombardment, with its unbearable noise and pollution, has taken a great toll on villagers' health. One woman was hospitalized recently, just from the shock. The number of cancer cases in the nearby villages is disproportionately large and growing. Countless women experience miscarriages, and birth defects are on the increase. It also affects nonhuman animals. We were told by villagers about a dog who recently had a miscarriage and about a farmer who had lost 2,500 chickens. We also heard that 80 percent of those attending a regional school for children with learning disabilities come from Maehyang-ri.
The head of the village resistance movement, Chun Mankyu, told us his father had killed himself. He then unbuttoned his shirt revealing a large, long, scarlet scar on his chest. He too, had tried to commit suicide. But then for his children's sake, and for all the children of the community, he decided to fight back. He sold his modest home, moved into a smaller place, and quit his job so he could devote himself full-time to the movement to close down the bombing range.
Lockheed-Martin now owns the Koon-ni Range. Somehow this kind of military privatization comes as no surprise. Fifty years of dropping bombs and spraying bullets has to be incredibly lucrative for arms manufacturers, who not only use up all that ordnance but also glean information to help them build bigger and better weapons.
Looking out over the Koon-ni Range one is struck by the verdant landscape where fields of corn, rice and other crops grow exuberantly behind the barbed wire. The villagers explained that they have been forced to pay the military for use of these lands to grow crops and can only work them on the weekends when there is no bombing. This is on property, as with all 97 US bases in South Korea, which was taken over by the US military without payment.
For the better part of 50 years, because of repression, most Koreans knew nothing about Maehyang-ri. The people of these villages were isolated. Nevertheless, local residents did take action many times. Among other things, they would fly kites to distract low flying pilots, and when the range was being built they tried to stop construction by putting their bodies in front of the bulldozers.
On December 12, 1998, when a petition protesting the noise pollution from the firing range failed to get response from the government, people went to the base saying, "bomb me." About 1,500 villagers occupied the bombing range.
Now, hundreds of thousands of students, farmers and workers are joining the protests. A huge demonstration on June 17 in Maehyang-ri drew a large contingent of auto workers from the Kia Motor Company. (Kia had recently built a plant not far from Maehyang-ri.) They demanded the military close down the Koon-ni bombing range. About 500 demonstrators broke through the fence and entered to occupy the range. Some were injured by the police. Chun Mankyu ripped down the orange flag which is hoisted each morning to signal the start of the bombing. He and others were arrested and imprisoned. When we met Chun, he had just been released thanks to the burgeoning movement in South Korea which is demanding: "US military out Of Korea!"
The powerful protests against the Navy's bombing range on the island of Vieques have captured worldwide attention and support as well. The bombing practice on Vieques has despoiled the environment of the region, devastated the livelihoods of the island's population who depend on fishing, and resulted in deaths and injuries to residents just as in Maehyang-ri. But the situation in Maehyang-ri is not yet as well-known internationally, despite the powerful movement in South Korea against the bombing range.
On the second day we were at the site, having been fed and taken care of by wonderful young activists working with the Maehyang-ri Task Force, we took part in a large rally of students. They had come by the hundreds despite unbearably hot, humid weather and having had their buses turned back by the police miles down the road. The rally was under way when the flights resumed not far above our heads. A member of our delegation, Elmar Schmaeling, a former admiral in the German Navy turned peace activist, observed that the planes were unloading their bombs and bullets too soon to hit the targets. Walter Black, a Korean War veteran, also now a peace activist and a member of the delegation, agreed with the admiral. They both expressed alarm that this was quite dangerous for all those taking part in the protest. It was viewed as an act of intimidation aimed at the students.
Hundreds of menacing South Korean soldiers and police arrived by the busloads and gathered inside the razor-wire fence or in the road and on the hills surrounding the protesters. South Korean forces, made up of young conscripts who have no choice but to be there are always used to protect the US military.
While we were in Seoul, there was another large spirited rally and march confronting hundreds of helmeted police at the prison where the Maehyang-ri protesters were being held. Three had been released but three were still incarcerated. One of the slogans of the march was: "Repeal the Status of Forces Agreement," under which the United States virtually controls South Korea.
Rarely during my travels in South Korea did I see an American soldier, though there are 37,000 stationed on 97 bases in a country which is one fourth the size of California. There were two exceptions. As our group walked a mile down the road to the entrance of the Koon-ni bombing range, an American soldier waved at me as a military vehicle passed by.
Another time, because I am tall, I could peer over the heads of South Korean militia who were lined up 10 deep to guard the US Army base where protesters gathered. I could see two or three men in US military uniforms. I thought, "surely they must feel unwelcome."
For more information, contact Green Korea United, 605 The Korean Ecuminical Building, 136-561, Younji-Dong, Jongro-Gu, Seoul, South Korea; email@example.com.
© Earth First! Journal, February-March 2001