Refusing the Empire of Bases: Gangjeong Village’s Culture of Peace and Life Movement

Nan Kim, Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

On South Korea’s Jeju Island, the recent completion of a contested naval base’s construction has marked a time of transition for the anti-base movement there, whose members have come to identify more pro-actively as the “Culture of Peace and Life Movement” (pyeonghwa saengmyeong munhwa undong). Rather than pursuing strictly an anti-base campaign, these activists have sought to broaden their opposition to the rationale behind the naval base by diversifying their challenge to the logic of global militarism itself. Through activism and network-building that have made the village a vital node among transnational peace movements, Gangjeong activists have become known for the range and prodigiousness of their creative production as an alternative community of conscience, collectively refusing the culture of war. Identifying Gangjeong’s peace movement as one of creative refusal draws upon anthropologist and Native American Studies scholar Audra Simpson’s observation that “resistance” already gives too much legitimacy to the actions of wrongful dispossession by a dominant power. Indeed, “refusal” more accurately describes the dynamic whereby Gangjeong activists have framed their dissent – in political, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual expressions – through universalizing claims of authority. That is, proponents of the Culture of Peace and Life Movement have staked claims chiefly based on three modes of discourse and practice: (1) unfailing repetition of rituals of conscience, notably the 100-bows meditation at dawn and a midday Catholic Mass, as daily solemn protests defending Jeju’s official designation as an “Island of World Peace”; (2) invocations of Jeju’s status as an exceptional case among UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites; and (3) contemporary integrative holistic philosophies that are Korean in origin but universal in scope, including the “Peace and Life” teachings originally formulated by Jeju-born Buddhist monk Dobeob Seunim, and the “seed idea” (ssialsasang) developed by pacifist Quaker religious leader and democracy activist Ham Seok-Heon.

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