South Korea’s Jeju Island is a popular tourist destination full of spas, resorts, golf courses, sandy beaches, waterfalls and hiking trails. But if you really want to get rejuvenated, skip the tourist hotspots and go directly to the village of Gangjeong to support the extraordinary community that has been opposing the building of a naval base since 2007. You’ll get your morning exercise at 7am bowing 100 times facing the base, praying for an end to its construction. You’ll get spiritual nourishment from the noon mass outside the base (no religion necessary). And if you really want to feel like royalty, join the activists in their daily ritual of sitting in plastic chairs blocking the base entrance, then having the police gently lift you up in your chair and cart you away so the cement trucks and traffic can flow in and out of the base. When the traffic ebbs you grab your chair and scurry back in place – starting the ritual all over again. Want aerobic exercise? Join in the jubilant dancing and drumming that liven up the protests. Want good food? The village cooks at the communal kitchen make fantastic, healthy meals with heaps of fresh vegetables and homemade kimchi.
After a long journey to cross the DMZ from North to South Korea with a group of 30 peace women, some of us – including Nobel Prize winner Mairead Maguire and retired Colonel Ann Wright – stopped on Jeju Island and fell in love with this community of farmers, fisherpeople, city officials, small shop owners, florists, artists, poets, students and grandmothers. Over the years they have attracted peace activists from the mainland and internationals, including members of the Catholic Workers, Veterans for Peace, Amnesty International, and prominent figures like Gloria Steinem, Oliver Stone and Korean-American activist Christine Ahn.
The struggle dates back to 2007, when the South Korean government began construction of a $970 million naval base in Gangjeong, a village of less than 2,000 people on the southern tip of Jeju island. The government had tried to build the base in two other villages but was thwarted by widespread protests – especially by the haenyeos, the island’s women divers renowned for spending hours in the chilly waters harvesting conches, abalones, and other marine wildlife, as well as for their history of fierce resistance to Japanese occupation.