Medea with villagers protesting deployment of THAAD in South Korea July 2017.
By Paul Liem | September 3, 2017
This is the first in a series of interviews with the five member U.S. Solidarity Peace Delegation to South Korea from July 23 to July 28, 2017, of whom the delegation coordinator, Juyeon Rhee, was denied entry to South Korea under a travel ban imposed by the Park Geun-hye administration, a ban that remained in force under the new administration of President Moon Jae-in.
The delegates met with South Korean peace and labor activists, the Chair of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee Shim Jae Kwon, and villagers of Seongju, Gimcheon, and Soseong-ri who are waging a struggle against the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in their communities. The delegation was sponsored by the Taskforce to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific as well as the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation. It was hosted in South Korea by the National People’s Action to Stop the Deployment of THAAD in South Korea (NPA), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations.
Delegates Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, Reece Chenault of U.S. Labor Against the War, Will Griffin of Veterans for Peace, delegation coordinator Juyeon Rhee, Jill Stein of Green Party USA, have since spearheaded an international petition campaign calling upon presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump to pull back from the brink of war in Korea by halting the war games and negotiating a freeze on missile and nuclear weapons testing with North Korea.
Following the delegate’s return to the United States, Paul Liem, KPI Board Chairperson, interviewed the delegates about their experiences in Korea and their reflections on how to strengthen solidarity between peace activists there and in the United States. His interview with Medea Benjamin follows.
PL: I think our readers would be interested in knowing how you arrived at your present calling. What started you on the path towards peace activism and how did you get interested in Korea?
MB: My path around peace activism came from being in high school during the days of the Vietnam War and seeing our friends, boyfriends, and brothers drafted to go fight in Vietnam. These young men were sent thousands of miles away to be killed or to kill people they didn’t know, for reasons they didn’t understand. And it set me on a lifelong journey of questioning my government and its policies, especially when they lead to such death and destruction.
In terms of Korea, it took me a long time to get involved. I spent many years working on issues related to Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, and not really focusing on Korea or the Asian continent except for the work I did against sweatshops in China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
My first trip to South Korea was in 2006. I was on a delegation to learn about the expansion of the U.S. bases there. It was such an eye opener to go to Pyongtaek, where the villagers had been fighting day in and day out for the right to keep their rice farms and the beautiful homes they had built with so much hard work. The U.S. base expansion, which included creating a golf course for the American officers, was going to destroy this lovely village. The South Korean military was working hand in glove with the U.S. Army, including putting up barbed wire to keep the villagers from their fields so they would be deprived of an income and forced to leave. To meet the farmers and see firsthand how my government was stealing their land and destroying their livelihoods was very distressing.
It was the first time I learned how strong the U.S. military is in South Korea. I had no idea that there were 83 bases, a massive presence.
On the positive side, I have rarely seen a resistance movement that is so determined and persistent. I was in awe of the way it was organized by local people with the support of progressive Koreans around the country. Even when the villagers and their supporters understood that they were not going to win, they continued with tremendous zeal. That is something I haven’t seen in many places around the world.
PL: Having been introduced to Korea back in 2006, I think you were probably ahead of the pack in terms of American peace activists learning about Korea. What’s your general perception of how the movement in this country understands Korea, the U.S. relationship to Korea, and the significance Korea has in terms of advocacy for a more peaceful foreign policy? Where does Korea sit in that picture?
MB: During my lifetime, the peace movement focused on Vietnam, then Central American and the African liberation movements during the 1970s and 1980s, then the Middle East during the post-9 11 days. There was a strong anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s as well, but it never really turned into a strong solidarity movement with Korea.
We also have to understand that the broad and vibrant anti-war movement that existed during the Bush administration against the Iraq war dissipated when Obama became president. Today it’s hard to really even talk of a peace movement in terms of being able to mobilize large numbers of people around the wars that are happening in the Middle East. There are even fewer people concerned about the issues on the Korean Peninsula, except every now and then when tensions flair up.
There are certainly individuals, NGOs and think tanks that work on Korea, many of them spearheaded by the Korean-American community or community working against nuclear weapons. But in terms of a broad-based movement of solidarity with Korea, it really doesn’t exist. This is very troubling given the potential for such a catastrophic war.
PL: You just returned from Korea on a delegation for Stop THAAD in Korea. What did you and your delegates see as the goal of your trip?
MB: I want to mention one other trip I made to Korea, which was in 2015 with a group called Women Cross the DMZ. This was a group of 30 women from around the world who got together to call for an end to the Korean War and the reunification of families. We started in North Korea and crossed over to South Korea. It was quite a unique opportunity to travel to North Korea and meet with women’s groups there, and then meet with women in South Korea. It gave me a taste of the complexity of the politics on the peninsula, but also a taste of the way that women could lead the way to peace.
When I got the opportunity to join this peace delegation in July to show solidarity with South Koreans opposing the THAAD anti-missile system, I jumped at the chance. I must confess that I always found issues related to THAAD confusing, starting with the name itself, which is a complicated acronym. It is also hard to understand why people are opposed to a system portrayed as defensive in nature, a system aimed at trying to stop missiles entering from the north and blow them up before they land.
So I thought it was important to learn more about why there was so much opposition within South Korea itself, particularly in the village where THAAD was being deployed. It’s one thing to read about the opposition and it’s another to actually visit the village of Seongju. It was so moving to talk to villagers about how their lives have been changed by the presence of this billion-dollar Lockheed Martin boondoggle, and I say boondoggle because it’s doubtful that THAAD is even capable of stopping North Korean missiles.
PL: Can you share with us any particular meetings or encounters on your visit last July that resonated with you in particular?
MJ: The situation in Seongju reminds me of Pyongtaek in the sense that it might not be a struggle that is winnable but there is still tremendous determination among the villagers. I found it particularly interesting to learn that most of the Seongju villagers were quite conservative and were farmers who were not previously active in any kind of resistance movement. It was so impressive to see women in their 80s, to see people who had never protested before, building such an incredible community that was able to carry on protests every single day and night. They had a 24/7 encampment on the road leading up to the place where the system was housed. Every evening they had a candlelight vigil against THAAD, and every week they would hold a daytime protest that attracted people from around the country.
I also feel like the local people really evolved in their thinking. At first it was largely a protest against the U.S. military taking land that was sacred to the local Buddhist community and against the U.S. military inserting their tranquil community into the crosshairs of a possible military confrontation. Then the villagers realized there were lots of other issues. They felt entitled to a significant study by the Korean government to understand the potential harm of the radiation from the THAAD radar system. They also questioned the legality of putting this system in place without the National Assembly ever having a chance to discuss and vote on the issue. They began to question the effectiveness of the system itself, whether it was really capable of protecting them, and started realizing that the “anti-missile system” was part of the vicious cycle of militarism that only benefited the weapons makers. What started out as “not in our backyard” protest turned into something much more significant, something like “not in our country”, we don’t want the U.S. government to drag us into its conflicts, conflicts not only with North Korea but also potentially with China.
PL: What questions did they have of you as someone coming from the U.S., a country that is posing so many problems for them in their view? What did they call out for you to do?
MB: There was a lot of support that we had come all this way to show our solidarity and opposition to our government’s policies. When we first got there we heard people saying “Take THAAD back to the United States.” After hearing us speak, the same people came up to us saying, “We’re sorry we said that. THAAD should not go back to the United States. We don’t want U.S. communities to be a target we way we are here. Instead of returning THAAD, we should dismantle it.”
I think that reflects a very quick learn on the part of some local people, an understanding of the concept of international solidarity, a recognition that there are people in the United States who are supporting their struggle and that Americans, too, are victims of an imperial system that puts us in the crosshairs and doesn’t represent the interests of the majority of Americans either.
Talking to the villagers of Seongju, we explained that the only people to benefit from endless war are the weapons makers. We asked several women to send a message, on camera, to the CEO of Lockheed Martin, which is the manufacturer of the THAAD system. We prefaced it by saying that she is one of the few woman to ever run a weapons company, she is a mother who prides herself on civic engagement and she earns over $20 million a year.
The response from villagers was beautiful. For example, one young woman said to the CEO: “I understand that you are a lot wealthier than I am, I don’t make nearly the kind of money you make, but my life is much richer because I don’t produce anything that would harm anyone.”
PL: Are there any plans to send those videos to Lockheed?
MB: Yes. We’re making videos of them, putting them out on social media, and airing them on Free Speech TV. We are also transcribing some of them and, together with a petition, taking them over to the home of the CEO.
PL: You’re literally going to take them to the house and knock on the door?
MB: Yes, yes. We will.
PL: Well, we’ll have to do another interview to see how that goes. What kinds of thoughts do you have about things we can do in the U.S. with and in solidarity with people in Seongju to achieve these goals, this common vision?
MB: It’s important to put the fight against THAAD in the larger context of provocations against North Korea that lead North Korea to respond militarily, and how under Trump this could spin out of control. We learned about how provocative the US-South Korean war games are to North Korea, how they are perceived as practice for a real invasion.
We need to do a better job educating people in this country about how we can bring down the tensions. We have to oppose the weapons systems like THAAD that antagonize not only North Korea but also China and fuel further militarism. We have to oppose the war games. And we have to push for negotiations. Today’s headlines in The Washington Post said that North Korea refuses to talk. We have to unpack that to show that it’s not true that North Korea refuses to talk. We have many examples over the years when North Korea was involved in negotiations, like during the Clinton years when progress was made in terms of stopping their development of nuclear weapons.
We also have to unpack the common narrative that the North Korean government is irrational. This doesn’t mean justifying the human rights abuses of the North Korean government or denying that it is an extremely repressive regime. It just means making it clear that in stark geopolitical terms, it is a rational actor in a global system where a superpower wants to overthrow it.
North Korea is refusing to give up its weapons for a very rational reason—it wants to stay in power. The North Korean government is reacting to not only decades of aggression and the lack of a peace treaty since 1953, but also just a result of looking at the world and seeing what has happened to governments on the US enemy list that have, under tremendous pressure, agreed to give up their sophisticated weapons systems. Just look at the examples of Iraq and Libya, where both governments have been overthrown, the leaders killed, and the country thrown into a state of chaos that remains to this day.
PL: What kind of steps would you like to see the United States and North Korea take to dial back or resolve hostilities?
MB: One of the issues that kept coming up while we were on this trip was this idea of a freeze for a freeze, a freeze on the war games for a freeze on the testing of missiles and nuclear weapons. And we learned that this is something that has been proposed many times, including by North Korea itself. I think that’s the only rational way to proceed at this moment, to call for a freeze, which gives time for negotiations to move forward.
Putting aside Donald Trump’s bombast and rhetoric, the situation is really ripe for negotiations. I was very pleased to hear Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sending a message to North Korea saying we don’t want to overthrow your government, we are not your enemy and we want dialogue. I found that extraordinary coming from somebody in the Trump administration because Tillerson would not have said that without clearing the message with other people in the administration. And so I think perhaps there is a good cop, bad cop situation going on within the administration. One would hope that it’s coordinated and that it is laying the groundwork for possible talks. Of course I think we can’t just assume that’s going to happen. We have to assume the worst, which is a nuclear confrontation, and work from there, recognizing that the situation is extremely dangerous.
We have to get more people in the United States, in the peace movement and outside the peace movement, to be clamoring for negotiations, to be pushing this idea of a freeze for a freeze, and not to be complacent. A catastrophic war is less likely to happen if we are more vocal, more active, more engaged and have made more connections in solidarity with the Korean American community here.
PL: CODEPINK has been at the forefront of virtually all key issues when it comes to advocating for peace. Can you tell us a little bit about CODEPINK and what kind of activities it might engage in with regard to Korean issues at this point?
MB: CODEPINK started in the aftermath of 9/11 as an organization trying to stop the invasion of Iraq. We obviously weren’t successful in stopping the war but we did build up a global movement that helped push for negotiations with Iran and against direct US military involvement in Syria. That kind of global movement needs to be rebuilt now, under Trump. We are at a time when a very dangerous person is in the White House and two possible nuclear confrontations, one in Korea and one in Iran, and we better build up movements that are able to try to stop our government from exacerbating these crises.
At CODEPINK we want to focus on the weapons industries that make so much money from these wars and are really the only ones that profit from these confrontations. We are launching a campaign starting October to call for divestment from the weapons industry. And we will be using examples like THAAD to show how weapons that are portrayed as protection are really creating more instability, as in the case of Korea.
We’re looking forward to being part of new campaigns that are created and launched by the already existing groups, mostly headed by Korean Americans. We look forward to having closer relationships with people inside South Korea itself and doing joint campaigns, from joint petitions and press conferences to joint actions against weapons manufacturers.
At CODEPINK, we are in the process of educating our community. We have a mailing list of about 250,000 people. We are going to be sending out more information about the Korean issues, educating our members and getting them more active. That’s part of the groundwork we need to do.
PL: Let’s say the work has been done and Korea is now in a better place. Let’s say that there is a process of reconciliation happening on the peninsula. As someone who has actually visited and spoken with people in North and South Korea, how would you imagine a meeting of villagers from Seongju and their counterparts in North Korea sitting down and starting to talk with each other? How would that go? After a country that’s been divided for so many years, two different social systems, how do you see that playing out on a human level?
MB: At a very basic level Koreans are brothers and sisters, no matter where they live and in spite of the different social systems. When you get people together, especially villagers to villagers, I think you would see a lot of bonding and a lot of solidarity. I have seen that in other places around the world where people have been told that they are enemies. And when they get together they find out that the enemies might be at the top levels of their governments, but it’s certainly not the people. In fact, the only ways that hostilities are maintained is keeping up a myth that people are enemies and that they are different from us. When you break down that myth by real human contact, the results are usually quite beautiful. And I know from seeing some of the videos of Korean family reunions and of reunification efforts when they’ve been allowed over the years, the reunions are incredibly moving, incredibly beautiful. Those kind of people-to-people ties are key to a reconciliation process.
PL: Thank you for sharing with us today Medea.
MB: Thank you and have a wonderful day. I look forward to working together for a peaceful Korea and a more peaceful world.
*Medea Benjamin is a co-founder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK, a co-founder of the human rights group Global Exchange, and an advocate for social justice for more than 40 years. She was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and is the author of nine books, including Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection, and is a frequent contributor to outlets
*Paul Liem is the Chair of the Korea Policy Institute Board of Directors.