Thursday, July 14, 2005

Base Geopolitics?

There was a big protest at Camp Humphries in South Korea this weekend thats over the local and international news, and getting a lot of debate on blogs as well, and even between us here at two koreas because we didn't want to get caught up in some of the more sensational debate that usually comes with protests like these in the ROK. For those of you who don't know, some 7,000 demonstrators fought with about 10,000 police guarding the military camp which US forces are planning to expand. There were a number of injuries on both sides, but it was certainly the pictures and video of stick and pipe wielding students charging the gates and the riot police that got the media's attention, as well as some bloggers who likened the event to the storming of the bastile.

The reasons for the protest are complex and involve, primarily, the move of the U.S. military headquarters from Yongsan garrison in Seoul to Pyongtaek in the Northeast by 2008. The move is part of general plans for the US to consolidate bases and reduce the number of U.S. troops in Korea. This decision must appear, and is, certainly mundane to outside viewers, but when one peels back the layers, the situation grows more complex and touches upon conflicts and frayed nerves at a variety of levels.

First, there is certainly public and private pressure to get the troops out of the capital region. The land that they sit on is prime real estate in downtown Seoul and worth billions. Besides making some very rich, freeing up this land would help the city to expand parkland, build apartments, and perhaps expand some of the industrial capacity south of the base. There is also a cultural argument to be made, and I'm sure those of you who have been to the Itaewon area near the army base in Seoul may agree, that the area around the US army base feels like a colonial scar out of place in a more modern and independent Korea. Thus, moving the base out of sight to the rural northwest is certainly favored by many in the capitol region.

Now, compounding the issue is also the local dynamics around Pyeongtaek, whom the base is being dumped on in a classic case of uneven metropole/hinterland relations, combinging a mixture of both boosterism and NIMBYism. This issue has been well explored by South Korea's Ohmynews last summer and have been roughly summarized by the blog Marmot's hole who states that if you’re a Pyeongtaek resident, your opinion on the base transfer is pretty much a function of where exactly in Pyeongtaek you live.

"If you live on the 3.49 million pyeong of land in the northwest area of Paengseong-eup (near Camp Humphreys) that is scheduled to be transfered to the U.S. military, you’re pretty much opposed to the move. The real estate, which comprises the villages of Daechu-ri, Dodu-ri, Donchang-ni, Nae-ri and Shinnae-ri, is mostly agricultural and the farmers, many of whom have probably lived on the land for generations, are naturally pretty attached to their soil.

Residents in the southeast of Paengseong-eup, including commercialized Anjeong-ni, and other areas just outside the area to be taken over by USFK are mostly in favor of the move. In particular, the store owners in front of the main gate of Camp Humphreys are particularly high on the move, and for obvious reasons. Apparently, land speculators are on the prowl down there, too, so locals may be expecting a boost in property values, something that might figure into the motives of both those in favor and opposed to the expansion.

Anyway, the farmer folk are currently adamant in their opposition to the move — the [summer 2004] government’s explanation meeting ended ugly, and they [the farmers] are talking about protecting the land (and their livelihoods) with their lives. The first 240,000 pyeong of land from Daechu-ri is scheduled to be turned over to [Camp Humphries] by the end of this year, which obviously doesn’t give the locals a whole lot of time to adjust. The government had announced a plan to compensate the 740 some-odd families that will be forced to relocate, but given the opposition of the targeted families, either the compensation offered will have to be sweetened or the land will have to be taken by force, with very little time to play politics. Sucks for everyone involved."

Added to the mixture are a number of Korean activist groups, particularly the peace and unification movement and Hanchongneon, who would like to see the US leave Korea immediately in the short term (a minority activist view) in contrast to those who would rather see them leave more gradually after the issue with the North is resolved (the more moderate progressive view). Hanchongnyeon and other radical activists approach the US from, perhaps, an outmoded national liberation perspective, which sees the US as an overarching enemy (a position that underestimates the Korean capitalist class), and which is seen as a little too extreme by other sectors in the Korean left who have a more subtle perspective. However, for those activists from other anti-war, anti-empire, peasant, and citizen movements in South Korea, the relocation plans are still a pretty good opportunity to protest an unruly empire whom they are bitter at for several reasons.

One reason involves the unsightly elements of military camptown atmosphere such as prostitution and traficking in women which are organized parts of US-ROK relations (these issues are explored quite well in scholar Katherine Moon's book Sex Among Allies); though these issues are also only the tip of the iceberg in terms of domestic red-light districts, they nonetheless continue to draw legitimate protest in Korea and at US bases around the world and nearby in Okinawa, particularly by many opposed to Status of Forces Agreements and other forms of immunity from domestic law for soldiers that go with them.

Another source of resentment is a feeling by many South Koreans of being dragged into the war in Iraq. Korea's involvement in Iraq is widely seen as an attempt to encourage America to not worsen the situation with North Korea. President No Myu Hyun said as much when he said that the decision to send 3000 troops to Iraq was made solely out of the national interest (US support for or minimal opposition to the sunshine policy), and really not part of any principled desire to participate in the 'coalition of the willing.'

Finally, peasants affected by the land deal and from other areas in the country are also mobilized becuase they are already facing hardship in Korea due to the free trade agreements that Washington pushes and which regions with cheap agricultural products such as China, Chile, and California more accurately represent.

Thus, this weekends protest, rather than simply being solely an issue of outside students or chiliastic peasants, seems rather to be an implosion of several geopolitical, national and regional issues into a pretty visible display of discontent, for better or for worse.

Here's some media on the event here and here from an NGO. Finally for more pictures here, here, and here and some video here. Check here also for the Marmots hole's more recent coverage of the event.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not so sure I agree with your take on Itaewon. Things have changed somewhat in the past few years (soldiers are now banned from brothels there, for example).

    Well worth reading is
    Kim Eun-Shil's article Itaewon as an Alien Space within the Nation-State and a Place in the Globalization Era, from which this paragragh comes:

    Many Itaewon storeowners I met while conducting fieldwork from June 2002 to August 2003 remarked that Itaewon was no longer the Itaewon of the past. They say it is no longer an area of Americans or American soldiers in particular. Many merchants claim that the growing number of anti-American demonstrations in Korea since two middle-school girls were run over by an American army armored vehicle in 2002 threaten their livelihood, and that Itaewon's night life is disappearing due to curfews on American soldiers since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The storeowners claim that, of Itaewon's two main industries, recreation and shopping, recreation is diminishing. They add that the issue of returning the Yongsan base to Korea is threatening the livelihoods of the Korean residents of Itaewon who depend on the housing leases of American personnel, making the future of Itaewon unpredictable.

    So we not only have the split between local businesses and farmers in Pyeongtaek, but also a split between the corporations hoping to develop Yongsan once the US army moves out, and the small businesses in Itaewon. Also, regarding prostitution in Itaewon, Michael Hurt has an article here which looks at the differences in working conditions between the girls who service Koreans and those who service foreigners (in Itaewon).