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SOUTH KOREA USED VIOLENCE AND COERCION TO EXPAND US BASES

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SEOUL, Dec 12 2006 (IPS) - The government of South Korea is waging alarming levels of violence and repression against its people to help the US enlarge its military presence, writes Christine Ahn, policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute, fellow with the Oakland Institute, and a member of KAWAN, Korean Americans Against War and Neoliberalism. In this article, Ahn writes that under the Pentagon\’s 2003 Global Posture Review, the US Forces in Korea are changing their historic role of defending South Korea to having more \’strategic flexibility\’ to deal with conflicts in the region while handing back responsibility to South Korea to defend itself, while using the peninsula as a launching pad. Last September 22,000 riot police marched into Daechuri to bulldoze 68 homes and the village human rights centre. This was the second demolition after the one in May when 20,000 police brutally attacked several hundred villagers who used only their bodies to prevent them from destroying their rice paddies and homes. To many Koreans the struggle in Pyongtaek has become a part of its ongoing history of invasion and occupation by foreign forces and a symbol of Korea\’s division. Many South Koreans view the US\’ amplified military presence in South Korea as fuelling tensions with North Korea and an obstacle to reunification.

Welcome to Daechuri, a small rice-farming village 50 kilometres south of Seoul, in the city of Pyongtaek near the US base Camp Humphrey where residents are refusing to hand over their homes and farmland to the US military.

Under the Pentagon’s 2003 Global Posture Review, the US Forces in Korea is changing its historic role of defending South Korea to having more ‘strategic flexibility’ to deal with conflicts in the region. In a sweet deal for the US, it will hand back responsibility to South Korea to defend itself, while using the peninsula as a launching pad. By 2009, the number of US troops will be cut from 37,000 to 25,000.

Why is the US military expanding when it should be downsizing?

The US plans to spend USD 11 billion dollars in new military hardware and technology in South Korea and to consolidate some 90 bases, relocating troops and equipment to Pusan and Pyongtaek. Camp Humphrey will expand by three times and occupy 2,470 acres of prime farmland.

Ever since relocation plans were drawn up, Daechuri residents have had virtually no say. In March 2005, after a series of closed hearings, the Korean Defense Ministry announced its plans for land compensation. Within a month, the government started buying land from some willing owners. By November, the Central Land Tribunal began to expropriate land residents refused to sell using eminent domain. Although the 241 residents appealed, their request for due process was ignored. The government promised to dialogue, but has instead used violence and repression to silence the remaining families who refuse to leave their homes, land, and livelihoods.

Last September 22,000 riot police marched into Daechuri to bulldoze 68 homes and the village human rights centre. This was the second demolition after the one in May when 20,000 police brutally attacked several hundred villagers who used only their bodies to prevent them from destroying their rice paddies and homes. Last month, in another effort to drive out the residents, the military built trenches, poured concrete in irrigation canals, and laid miles of razor wire fencing to keep the farmers from getting to their fields.

To further demoralise the villagers, the government sentenced the village chief, Kim Ji-Tae, to two years in prison on charges of obstructing civil affairs and for his leadership in the demonstrations against the base expansion. Last week, Amnesty International designated Kim Ji Tae a prisoner of conscience and announced plans to carry out an international campaign for his release.

A native of Daechuri and rice farmer for 38 years, 50-year old Kim Ji Tae has emerged as one of Korea’s most charismatic leaders. When asked by the Defense Ministry for the price of his land, Kim Ji-Tae replied,

”The price must include every grain of rice grown and harvested here. It must include all of our efforts to grow them, as well as our whole life here, including our sighs, tears and laughter. The price must include the stars, which have witnessed our grief and joy, and the wind, which has dried our tears. ”

During Thanksgiving week, I travelled to Daechuri with 18 Americans, including US mom turned peace activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004.

As we approached Daechuri, our bus was stopped at the first of two heavily fortified checkpoints where 200 police in riot helmets and shields awaited us. Luckily several camera crews and journalists appeared out of nowhere waiting to capture Cindy Sheehan’s grand entry, otherwise we, like most visitors, would have been denied entry.

The National Human Rights Commission ruled the checkpoints illegal and in violation of the villagers’ human rights, but police are still routinely harassing residents and visitors.

After passing through the second checkpoint, we were guided to a barn where we joined 100 or so villagers in their 811th consecutive vigil.

Since the clashes began, over 1,000 people have been injured, 828 people arrested, and an estimated half a million dollars in fines have been charged. These figures don’t even capture the emotional trauma the villagers have endured, many in their 70s and 80s, who have witnessed bulldozers tearing down their homes and the village’s only primary school they built with their own hands. Many salvaged their homes by tying themselves to their roofs, but the remaining 147 homes are scheduled to be destroyed by the end of this year.

Half of the residents have relocated with some government assistance. The barrage of violence and harassment, daily sight of barbed wires and rubble, and the constant ringing of helicopters and planes would drive anyone away. But to the villagers who have been struggling together for years, naturally, they were disappointed. Some of the residents say sour relations have developed between them and their former neighbours, calling it yet another division caused by the United States.

And that is what the struggle in Pyongtaek has become to many Koreans: a part of its ongoing history of invasion and occupation by foreign forces and a symbol of Korea’s division. Many South Koreans view the US’ amplified military presence in South Korea as fuelling tensions with North Korea and an obstacle to reunification.

The villagers’ struggle has not been in vain. They have captured the hearts and minds of people around the world who see the resistance in Pyongtaek as part of the global struggle against US global domination. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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