Daechuri, a village of less than 1,500 full time residents has become the most recent symbol of dissatisfaction with US military presence amongst a vocal segment of the South Korean public. Daechuri, set to be evacuated by the end of June is a small farming community 40 miles south of the capitol, Seoul. The village will be seized to make way for the expansion of the US military’s Camp Humphreys, which is set to triple in size.
Camp Humphreys, one of the US military’s most important installations on the Korean peninsula has the largest airstrip of any installation outside the the US and the only one on the peninsula. The base will be expanded to 3,600 from 1,200 acres and encompass all of Daechuri and neighboring village Doduri by 2011.
The issue of the Deachuri villagers has been making headlines for months and the situation recently escalated when thousands joined a week of protests throughout the country. Once considered left of center peace activists, recent events suggest that the coalition of protesters surrounding the anti-American military issue may be gaining in popularity.
On May 4th 2,000 Daechuri residents, University students, NGO activists and local political and religious leaders, organized by a group called the “Pan-national Committee to Deter the Expansion of Pyeongtaek U.S. Base,” a coalition of 138 civic groups, staged protests outside an abandoned elementary school that had become the headquarters for the movement against the base’s expansion. At nine in the morning 18,000 military troops were sent to break up the protest after it was declared illegal. How the violence began is a contentious issue. Both sides claim the other were the first to use force. Local newspapers and television give differing versions of what events took place and how many people were arrested and injured.
On video footage taken by Voices of People, a local NGO, Korean soldiers are shown in a stand off against protesters outside the school. The police officers continue to push a group of the protesters further and further up against the exterior of the school and into the enclave around the front doorway, crushing a university student against a utility poll. The protesters then began hitting the police officers’ riot Shields with bamboo sticks. The scuffle eventually led to over 400 detainment’s, 200 injuries and 16 arrests. The following Saturday some 700 protesters rallied in front of the Korean Defense Ministry which was later followed by a candlelight vigil with some 6,000 attendees, both calling for the end of the expansion plans and the release of the 16 prisoners.
Daechuri, known throughout Korea for its rice has been designated a military protected zone by the Korean Ministry of Defense since the protests of early May. Groups of Korean soldiers, most in the late teens and early 20’s are currently positioned on each plot of farmland to prevent further planting. The plots have been surrounded with 18 miles of double fortified barb wire. Cameras set up though out the village and on Camp Humphreys watch towers monitor the villagers movements and Korean soldiers have blockaded all roads leading into the village where visitors and residents can be randomly selected to show identification and state a purpose for gaining entrance into the village.
Daechuri, has been under siege by Korean police and military since the day when the protests took place outside the abandoned elementary school. “It’s so depressing we don’t know what to do.” said one villager, “We used to be farmers working every day and now we can only sit around and look at what is happening to us.”
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 the Department of Defense announced the “Global Defense Posture Review.” This was a plan to reconfigure US military bases all around the world in order to concentrate on the areas of greater significance and modernize the bases to fit the goals of the war on terror. As part of the plan US and South Korean officials agreed that bases would be reduced from 71 to only 10 and troop level from 37,000 to 25,000 by the year 2011. When asked if the villagers were satisfied that more troops would eventually be leaving one quietly responded “What difference does it make to us if they are still taking our homes away.”
The area where Daechuri currently lies was created in 1952 from virtually infertile marshland shortly after the original Daechuri village was evacuated to make room for the Camp Humphreys airstrip. “They were born there” Father Moon Jung Hyeon, leader of the movement to stop the Camp Humphreys Expansion, points in the direction of the airs tip “but they want to die here.” In Korea, a country of 44 million, half of which live in or around the capitol, Seoul, group identity is critically important and no group is more important to explaining ones identity than ones hometown. “Our hometown was taken away 50 years ago, we have worked our whole lives to recreate our hometown and now they want to take it away again, this is why we must fight,” one villager explains. As the villagers explain, the land they were forced to move onto after the first Camp Humphreys expansion was a sterile swampland which took years of hard work to cultivate. “This is the legacy of our lives, our children and our grandchildren. Now that is being taken away,” the villager explains. “Whenever outsiders come to Daechuri they always focus on the amount of compensation that is being offered. There is no compensation for your life being taken away,” another villager explains, “they might as well kill us.”
Recent events involving the US military in South Korea have created an erratic public opinion towards the US. In June 2002, two eighth grade girls were killed when an armored vehicle accidentally hit the girls on a country road 18 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, which serves as the boarder between North and South Korea. US favor ability in Korea took another hit when current President No Mo-hyun took on the incredibly controversial decision to send Korean troops to Iraq. Decline continued when a number of Korean civilians were taken hostage and killed in Iraq in 2004. The issue of the Daechuri farmers, which has been covered widely in the press has now become the latest point of contention in a long discussion over whether US troops should remain in Korea and for how long.
In a poll, taken in July of 2005, where 101 experts on US – Korean relations were asked how they would characterize the current relationship, over half stated it was either weak or very weak. The group of professors, researchers, National Assembly members and government officials also felt that the relationship had weak end significantly during the tenure of the current president No Moo-hyun. Eighty-six percent of the experts described the current relationship as “undesirable.” When asked what they believe had weakened the relationship 57% responded that it was the current Korean administration’s relationship with the US government.
Even more troubling, in a poll taken this past February by the The Korea Times and Hankook Ilbo newspapers nearly half of the 1,000 18-23 year old Koreans said that South Korea should side with North Korea if the US were to attack North Korea. The same group named China as Korea’s greatest strategic partner with 39% and the US coming in second at 18%. More surprisingly, in 2003 58% of adult Koreans stated they were disappointed that Iraqi soldiers didn’t fight harder against the invasion of US soldiers in a PEW research poll. In the same poll, only 46% of South Korean adults had a favorable view of the United States. A poll published in Joong Ang daily newspaper, found that 39 percent of the respondents said the United States was the most threatening country to Korea and by contrast only 33% named North Korea. In a similar Gallup poll taken in 1993 only 1% stated the US as being the greatest threat to South Korean security.
How will this last est issue effect South Korean views toward the US? Public opinion in Korea is highly volatile and susceptible to changes in media coverage, making the impact of this event difficult to measure. The Daechuri farmers on the other hand will soon be searching for new places to live. Some Daechuri residents have plans to move into the closest city and live in apartment buildings. “America is a very large place with plenty of land,” a 69 year old villager said. “Why do they need to come and take our village?”
The author of this article currently lives in South Korea.