How outsiders found a home as guardians of Jeju’s Gangjeong Village

Posted on : 2017-06-18 11:41 KST Modified on : 2017-06-18 11:41 KST
Two women found strength as they joined a community protecting a village from the crushing power of the state
Choi Hye-yeong (front) and Bandi live as guardians in Gangjeong Village
Choi Hye-yeong (front) and Bandi live as guardians in Gangjeong Village

“Bandi” and Choi Hye-yeong, the secretary-general of Gangjeong Friends (who goes as “Choi*Hye*Yeong” on social media), are the guardians of Gangjeong Village on Jeju Island. I couldn’t bring myself to ask them their age for this article. When they told me they had the same sign on the Chinese zodiac, I got the feeling I should let the question drop. In order to get to know these people, who have been part of the struggle at Gangjeong Village for a long time, I wanted to try something different from the usual approach. So this article is based not on an interview with the two people, but on my observations of them.

The two look alike, but are different. Even Park Seung-hwa, the photojournalist who has been taking pictures of Gangjeong Village and its residents for several years now, said he couldn’t tell the two apart at first. Their resemblance can probably be attributed to the emotional ties binding them together.

When I asked why they lived in Gangjeong, they hesitated to offer a definite answer. “No particular reason. We’re just living in peace,” one of them said. After a short pause, she added that they could see Halla Mountain from their house. It’s hard to fathom what it means to be “living in peace” next to a naval base that has been a veritable warzone nearly every day for more than a decade now.

The two are different, too. Choi is the secretary-general of Gangjeong Friends, a group of people who have moved to Gangjeong Village. When I first met her, she was busy trying to sell “black barley,” a grain that is native to Jeju Island. She seemed to be more bold than savvy, as she tried to figure out how much 650 kilograms would cost and how many kilograms should go into a single package.

Choi is the only activist whose expenses are covered by Gangjeong Friends. Her main job is communicating the situation at Gangjeong to the outside world. People outside of Gangjeong can see the village through her social media posts. Bandi, on the other hand, refers to herself as the “backer” of Gangjeong Friends. She takes part in various groups and clubs. In the evening, she sometimes has people over and fixes them a meal. She is a sort of “communicator.” Whereas Choi brings Gangjeong to the attention of the outside world, Bandi brings new arrivals to Gangjeong inside the group. Thus, the two of them are emotional contemporaries who share the emotion of living in the same village, but they are also individuals with their own separate lifestyles. To be sure, there’s nothing special about this. A village of 100 people is by definition a place containing a hundred different worlds.

It’s not clear exactly when the term “guardian” appeared in the history of social movements in South Korea. But guardians first began to make their presence felt in the activism community with the launch of a group opposed to the expansion of the US military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province in 2003. The villages of Daechu and Dodu in Pyeongseong Township, Pyeongtaek, now the site of a US military facility, were once the home of 270 households, consisting of 747 people altogether. After a struggle that lasted for nearly five years, there were barely 40 households left. As more residents left and the number of empty houses increased, the remaining residents sunk deeper into despair. So whenever a family moved out, the Defense Ministry demolished their house as ruthlessly and noisily as possible. Even more important than the demolition itself was showing the villagers that houses were being demolished.

The guardians were people who moved into empty houses in the villages of Daechu and Dodu in order to prevent that from happening. They wanted to use their presence to slow down the demolitions. This was the start of a new kind of movement. As people crowded to the blockaded village, something amazing happened.

First of all, the psychological isolation of the villagers was lifted. The villagers warmly welcomed the guardians who had moved into the neighborhood. They naturally received the nickname “guardians of Hwangsaeul.” Hwangsaeul was the name of the wide rice paddies in the villages of Daechu and Dodu that the residents wanted to preserve. The guardians’ singing and dancing gave the villagers the energy to keep fighting. “Every day was a party after the guardians arrived,” one of the villagers said.

That transformed the nature of the struggle in Pyeongtaek. What had been just the cause of the residents turned into a civic campaign for people around the country. For the first three years or so of the Pyeongtaek struggle, the residents had been completely isolated in their struggle. After that, civil society joined the cause, but they were slammed by the conservative media as being “anti-American activists.” But the guardians were different. They were not professional demonstrators who were calling for the US military to leave the country. At that point, the campaign against the base became a matter of the right to live in peace, something that the entire society needed to reflect upon. It became a matter of human rights violations being committed by the government. A village leader was sentenced to two years in prison for participating in a civil disobedience campaign to preserve the right to live, and a bus of children was blocked from going to school so that official duties could be carried out.

Before going to Gangjeong Village, Choi Hye-yeong had been studying for the government exam to become a public school teacher. It was in her fourth year of university, in 2009, that her ordinary life of going to school and back home, and to church on the weekends, was shaken to the core. While최혜정 visiting Jeju on the Jeju Peace Tour, she “learned about the Apr. 3 Jeju uprising [of 1948], chilled watermelons in the Gangjeong Stream, talked with the villagers and played in the water.” The trip brought her a subtle pain, and a peculiar pleasure. She promised herself that someday she would live on Jeju.

Once again, it was by chance that Choi heard about Gangjeong Village. As a poor student, she would often apply for free movie screenings, and the movie she happened to win a ticket for was “Jam Docu Kangjung” (“Kangjung” being a different spelling of “Gangjeong”). That was in 2011. The next February, she went on a random trip to Gangjeong Village and went out to the harbor. All of a sudden, she asked the activists to let her get in the kayak. They tried to stop her, warning her that she would be fined. But propelled by a strange courage, she said she didn’t care about the fine. “The sea, the sky, the Gureombi rocks and the wind on the Gangjeong coast were very comforting,” she said.

Bandi was an editor at a publishing company. At first, she went to Jeju to relax, just like most people from the mainland. When she first changed her address to Gangjeong in 2013, she was planning to live there for six months or so. Even now, her friends ask her if she’s still in Gangjeong and what she’s doing there. Her life in Gangjeong began when “an acquaintance with a house there said it would be all right if I stayed there for a month or so.” While there was something strange about relaxing in a village that was the center of conflict, she figured it would be okay to stay there for a little while. But the house turned out to be the place where pilgrims to Gangjeong were staying. It was at the heart of the conflict, and a dozen or so people were in and out of the house every day. As she stayed at a house that got so many pilgrims, she became curious about “what life was like for people living here” and decided to stay. After settling her affairs in Seoul, she returned to Gangjeong. Now Bandi owns that house.

Choi and Bandi had been ordinary people without a sense of belonging, but they became strong as they experienced a village being crushed by the power of the state. They got chocked up seeing the elders sitting at the entrance to the village. They were sad “the day that the Gureombi rocks were broken,” and it was unbearably depressing “to see apartments for naval officers going up.” Some people say that there is nothing to fight over now that the construction on the base and the apartments is complete – and they’re right. “While we were fighting a thousand soldiers, police and hired goons, we didn’t have time to think about anything, and we just kept going without realizing that time was passing us by.” But things are different now. Every day, there’s a lot to think about. They’re trying to figure out how to keep living in peace in Gangjeong Village.

Hannah Arendt once said that “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” That illumination is always a faint and uncertain light. The people who have changed from outsiders to residents during the 10 years of conflict at Gangjeong Village believe that they haven’t been beaten yet and that they can do anything. The tough wall of reality has always been cracked not by outside forces but by a brick in the wall.

By Kim Wan, staff reporter

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