In trendy, foody, ‘Deli X‘ in Deptford, Soth East London, about a dozen people have gathered on a Monday evening to attend a screening of a film, part of the 2015 New Cross and Deptford Free Film Festival. The film is ‘The Ghosts of Jeju’ made on a low budget by American film-maker and activist Regis Tremblay. It tells stories of inhuman crimes and injustices committed on a beautiful island off the South Coast of Korea named Jeju.
Tonight’s hosts are wearing yellow tabards with black letters in English and Korean announcing protest and their affinity with a struggle. Their protest and their struggle is to stop the building of a huge American naval base at Gangjeong, a village on this island, Jeju, beloved by Koreans and by people from all over the world.
The film first documents the iniquitous treatment of the islanders of Jeju by the American military in the years immediately following WW2, and prior to the outbreak of the Korean war. Massacres, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy were carried out by Americans fearful of any left-leaning sympathies among islanders who had been recently liberated from decades of ruthless Japanese colonisation.
Today there is a curiously lavish, institutional-looking monument to the American massacre, and yet, despite this terrible stain cast on to this paradise by America, in recent years, a plan to establish an American naval base on the island has been sanctioned by the Korean government and pressed forward, despite constant and significant protests from local people, as well as supporters – including environmental and peace activists- from the mainland and around the world.
The film is deeply moving and often shocking. Today, a constant occupation and daily protests take place at the gates of the building site, where, every day, scores of trucks deliver more and more lifeless concrete, by means of which to hurriedly transform a beautiful and ancient natural bay (whose rocks the are believed by local people to be both alive and sacred) into modern, geometric docks for warships. Meanwhile, a huge swathe of the coastal area around Gangjeong is being made into accommodation for thousands of American marines.
The armoured police forces that ensure the safe passage of the tonnes of concrete and other materials to the site, are, of course all-but impossible to oppose. The protestors are a mix of poorly-equipped local people, joined by Koreans from the mainland and from farther afield, and maintaining, nevertheless, an effusive protest, always expressing unwavering indignation regarding what they see as a wholly inappropriate project that sullies a rare haven of beauty, nature and traditional values, and which turns a natural paradise and national treasure into a base for warmongering and a military target.
Despite serial arrests, injuries, fines and imprisonments, the protests go on, day after day, year after year, supported strongly by the Catholic church, one of whose priests is a leading representative of the protest. Artists, intellectuals, students and others unite at the protest camps, supporting each other and receiving support from far-afield, consolidating their own passionate beliefs in a world where the peaceful need and deserve to be heard at least as much as the one-track minds and droning voices of the militarists, whose own chilling speeches and announcements are also heard in this film.
One of the most admirable and striking things about this protest is, not just the bravery and commitment but the way in which the resistance maintains its spirit and its aims against all odds, and even, some might argue, against all reason (the base is now well-under way in its construction.) When an international conference, related to the United Nations, and concerning global ecology was swayed to NOT support the protest, the protestors outside the conference center turned what must have been their significant disappointment into a song and a dance for the delegates as they left. Indeed, every day and every evening at the protest site, the protestors use a range of cultivated and affirmative gestures, rites and rituals, to maintain their belief, spirit, optimism and positivity, despite being confronted by the formidable might, propaganda, media silence (the protest has been all but kept out of national media in Korea) and the massive wealth and power that opposes them.
It is both touching and inspiring to see all this evidence of humanist belief, in the championing of peace and the upholding of non-militarist aspirations to peace, and yet, as the unique and traditionally revered natural basalt rocks of Jeju are crudely split, crushed and clawed aside by enormous industrial diggers, and replaced by brutal geometric concrete pods, it is also heart-breaking to see such a blinkered force progressing and succeeding.
But the protest continues, singing, dancing, shouting, praying, crying, screaming and obstructing, at least slowing and making more expensive the monstrous ruination and corruption of a treasured site and natural environment. Together these brave and devoted protestors uphold, every day, and for everyone, the highest of human values, maintaining and considering our highest role and farthest future, upholding the greatest potential and facility of the human heart, championing our, own, and nature’s grace and fragility as ultimately superior to any destructive and murderous force that can be rallied by the warships, missiles, jets and ranks of trained soldiers that here intend to supplant an ancient, peaceful and traditional community that has lived gently in harmony with this beautiful environment for thousands of years