Back To Top

From peace island to war island?

Korean-American writer Paul Yoon’s 2009 short story collection “Once the Shore,” which won the prize for fiction at the13th Asian American Literary Awards, is set on a fictionalized version of Jeju Island and deals with the devastating impact of militarism, colonialism and the Cold War on a rugged island culture.

The relevance of Yoon’s stories to the real Jeju Island has recently intensified as concrete has begun to pour on coral reefs to make way for an eco-friendly military base for South Koreas expanding blue water navy. At the head of the Korean fleet is the symbolically-named Dokdo, an 18,000 ton assault ship, which makes it almost as big as the islets in the East Sea it is named after.

The base may also provide lily pad support for the U.S. Navy. Leading local activists in the anti-base movement have been arrested while peace activists from all over the world have begun to lend their support, most notably feminist writer Gloria Steinem.

In a letter to friends that has circulated widely online, Steinem describes the epic volcanic beauty of Jeju Island, which is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Steinem concludes the letter stating, “Jeju Island ... stands for an ancient balance. We must save it from the cult of militarism that endangers us all, women and men.”

Jeju is home to both The International Peace Institute and Jeju Peace Forum. In 2005, then Korean president Roh Moo-hyun declared Jeju an Island of World Peace.

Both Mongolia, which ruled Jeju from 1273 to 1374 and Japan, which ruled Jeju from 1910 to 1945, fought to capitalize on Jeju’s strategic proximity to China, Russia and Japan. In 1948, a multitudinous protest movement on Jeju known as the April 3 Uprising organized against the appointment of Syngman Rhee as president of Korea by the U.S. military.

The violent crackdown on supposed communists and communist-sympathizers by the South Korean army resulted in the death of between 30,000 and 80,000 Jeju civilians. The April 3 Uprising has become a symbol of Jeju’s independence from the mainland. As historian Bruce Cumings notes, “The people were deeply separatist and did not like mainlanders; their wish was to be left alone.”

This attitude is reflected in the Korean drama “Tamra: the Island,” which is set on Jeju during the 17th century and depicts tensions between the between local divers and farmers and an exploitative Confucian elite residing in Seoul.

Protesters are concerned about the cultural and environmental impacts of the base and it is estimated that 95 percent of the people of Gangjeong, the village on the southern part of Jeju where the base is being constructed, are in opposition.

The histories of colonialism and the cold war are still alive in the bodies and minds of the people of Jeju who fought against both Japanese colonialism and Cold War authoritarianism. The remilitarization of Jeju could pour salt water on wounds that have never fully healed. In an article in the Jeju Weekly, Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju Island writes: “In a society brutalized and traumatized by the national military, the idea of a military base on the island which will house 25,000 troops is difficult for Jeju’s people to accept.”

The Nov. 23, 2010 shelling, evacuation and the subsequent increased military deployment on Yeonpyeongdo, an island located near the disputed maritime border of North and South Korea made it clear that the cold war is still hot in this part of the world. We are currently witnessing a re-cold warring of the Pacific Rim of Asia as China looks to expand control over shipping lanes in the South China Sea and the U.S. and Korea move to contain China by expanding into the East China Sea.

When I first moved to Korea in 2005, I believed that I would see the reunification of the Korean peninsula in my lifetime. But with the wreckage of militarization piling up from all directions in the Asia-Pacific region, the prospect of that seems increasingly distant. In a recent article for Project Syndicate, former President for the Philippines Fidel V. Ramos argues that a Pax Asia-Pacifica needs to replace Pax Americana in the region in order to contain our rivalries and avoid the arms buildup that, unfortunately, now seems to be under way.

In addition to the naval base, the government plans to build a dock for cruise ships. As Todd Crowell notes in a recent article for Asia Sentinel, growing numbers of Chinese are visiting Jeju and would likely form the bulk of the passengers on the tourist vessels. Seoul probably is not unhappy that thousands of ordinary Chinese will get a good look at Korea’s growing naval might while enjoying its beaches and sampling its kimchi.

Fictional narratives like Paul Yoon’s “Once the Shore” and “Tamra: the Island” work to restore humanity to islanders, a humanity that is stripped away when islands are viewed as strategic pieces in a regional game of Risk.

There was no great outpouring of support in South Korea for the people of Yeonpyeongdo and there have been no candlelight vigils in downtown Seoul over the basing of Jeju, perhaps because as islanders, the people of Yeonpyeongdo and Gangjeong are islanders on the periphery of the nation. But what about the people for whom the periphery is the center? For whom the island is the mainland?

By John Eperjesi

John Eperjesi is an assistant professor of English at Kyung Hee University and the author of “The Imperialist Imaginary: Visions of Asia and the Pacific in American Culture.” He would like to thank Anne Hilty and Prof. Gwon Gwi-sook of Cheju National University for help with this article ― Ed.