At the end of August in 2011, I boarded a plane to Jeju Island, the largest island located in the southern part of South Korea to go to a small village called Gangjeong. Who would have imagined that my simple journey to a small village in an island will end up being in the jail? Unfortunately Gangjeong happens to be the village chosen for the naval base in 2007 by the government.
I work at the Center for Voluntary Social Service in Sogang University. The reason I decided to visit Gangjeong was to meet and spend some time with Fr Jeong-hyun Moon, a 73-year-old retired parish priest known among people as 'the priest of streets', who has dedicated his life to pro-democracy and peace movement for the last 40 years. He was there with the people participating in a protest against Jeju naval base construction. Fr Moon had set up a prayer tent in front of the main gate of naval base construction site; and demanded cancellation of the construction of the naval base along with the village people who have been opposing the plan. In order to encourage and support him, I headed to Gangjeong with a few other Jesuits.
The navy treated the praying tent as their annoyance. They were waiting and watching for an opportunity to tear it down. Two days after arrival in Gangjeong, I encountered a turning point of my journey. That day, I was sleeping in the tent with other Jesuits guarding the place. At about 5am, we heard the warning sirens that made us realize a state of emergency has been declared. After a while more than 1000 policemen invaded the village. Soon the village was isolated from any contact outside by the policemen. After besieging the village, they started to arrest the core activists who had led the protest as well as the residents who protested against their coercive and violent action. We, the Jesuits and diocesan priests were isolated by policemen for about 12 hours, later arrested and dumped us at a remote place far from the site in order to segregate us from the people. Eventually the praying tent was pulled down by the police. The cruel action of policemen on that day made me realize how serious the condition was.
In 2007, the navy enforced the law to construct the naval base in Gangjeong without following the procedure of receiving the consent of the local people. The village people immediately formed a protest group against the construction and started a peace movement. From the beginning, regardless of their peaceful protest, the navy had been responding with deception and violence. The village people had been protesting peacefully for the past five years in spite of receiving verbal, physical and emotional violence. As a result, roughly 75.5% of residents had suffered from mental disorders such as compulsive hostility, anxiety, and depression; 43.9% of people felt suicidal. I was deeply pained to hear these facts.
From October 2011, solidarity activities in support of the movement by the Korea Catholic organizations had been spreading across the country. As one way of solidarity activities, the priests started celebrating Mass on the street in front of the construction site. I attended the street mass whenever possible. Besides the street Mass, we protested the brutal exercise of power by government authorities and demanded the cancellation of the construction. To actualize our demands, we tried to block the construction vehicles entering the construction site. In that process, we were taken to police station many times. Despite several difficulties, we did not stop the resistance. We were not even afraid of going to jail. Our activities encouraged and consoled the village people and re-energized the peace movement that was about to die down. When I was in jail, I found great comfort in the fact that I, as a priest, had this opportunity to imitate Jesus who shares the painful feelings of persecuted people and console them.
For me, Gangjeong is the place where the Two Standard Meditation of St Ignatius became real. On one side, there is a small group of people attending the street Mass, on the other side, there is a big group armed with weapons and shields waiting to devour. It is not easy to find hope because of the disparity of power. However, I firmly believe that if Jesus was here with us, he would have celebrated the street Mass. Attending the street Mass has been a great joy to me; because I meet Jesus who gladly becomes a neighbour to people who are being crushed and crucified.
Fr Chonguk Kim SJ