▲ A photo of the camp dining tent, taken late last month. Photo by Darryl Coote
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Fresh water bubbles up from springs to form pools in the gureombi, a huge volcanic rock stretching along the ocean shore at Gangjeong on the south coast of Jeju Island. From the outside, the ancient ocean pounds relentlessly and powerfully against the same massive rock. I can’t help but draw a distinction with another; the recently-initiated battle for the gureombi which is pitting villagers, environmentalists, and peace activists against the relentless and powerful government and corporations that wish to destroy the shoreline to make way for a naval base.
This battle has made local, national and even international headlines in recent months and it is not my purpose here to add to the debate. I would, however, like to recount my experience living at the Gangjeong Peace Camp established with the intent of preventing further construction of the base, which was begun in around January of this year.
A number of things strike me when I arrive at the camp. First, the natural beauty of the area surrounding the site. Alongside part of the construction fence, a little river flows into the sea aiming towards Beom Seom, a small but prominent island off the coast. Admittedly, hidden behind the trees on the other side of the stream lies a tourist resort – but it appears to have no ships or missiles parked anywhere near it. Then, walking down through what is already a destruction, I mean construction site, to the stark and beautiful gureombi, one is aware mostly of machines, grey and looming tetrapods and the ground that has already been leveled.
▲ The author helping prepare a meal at the camp. Photo courtesy Sean de Waal
Along the shore, where the actual camp is situated with rows of tents and three large communal living areas (in structures that match the citrus greenhouses which abound in the area), a different natural beauty shines through -- that of the people who run and stay at the camp. Immediately warm and hospitable, it becomes apparent that not all are Jeju natives. There are activists from Seoul, Geoje Island, Gwangju, and other parts of Korea as well as volunteers representing international organizations and visitors from abroad. But it is far from chaotic. Volunteers record the names and telephone numbers of all who stay at the camp and include the duration of stay in their notes. A communications and information center looks out on the incredible sea view. There, other volunteers coordinate and provide information, access the Internet for news and to update Web sites, such as the Facebook pages connected to the effort, invite guests to sign petitions or write messages of peace, and provide general assistance to visitors.
And, should these visitors feel the pangs of hunger, a meal is always on hand – a “peace meal” if you will. For, next to the sleeping quarters is a kitchen and dining area that is always open and always permeated with the tantalising aromas of food simmering away in pots and pans. Taciturn Kim Jong Hwan is the chief cook at the camp, tirelessly producing traditional and delicious meals for those who stay at the camp, as well as for visitors. Other guests also take turns to help prepare meals and I had great fun doing this when I stayed there. Sharing experiences and views over a pile of potato skins and onion peels and a bowl of makeoli is rewarding on many levels. Nobody is charged for their meal, however a donation box is on hand for patrons to contribute to the purchase of the food. [Note that Kim Jong Hwan was arrested by police on Aug. 24 and, at the time of writing, was still in custody].
Recent crackdowns by riot police at the behest of the government and the massive corporations, such as Samsung, involved in the construction sadden me. Without being drawn into the politics of this tense situation, the people I met in the Gangjeong peace camp were, without fail, kind, generous, friendly, peaceful and passionate. They care deeply about their village, their island, and their country – including the people and the environment. I believe the government should hear their voices because Korea needs people like this, they matter to the future more than scary ships and menacing missiles.
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