There was a festive gathering last Tuesday at the Old Justice pub at which supporters of the campaign against the Jeju Island naval base held a public meeting. The London-based group has already held two demonstrations against the base this year, one outside the Korean embassy and one outside the Samsung electronics shop in Tottenham Court Road (Samsung is involved in various logistical contracts relating to the construction of the base), and this evening was part of a campaign to start to spread the message more widely.
The mainstay of the evening was an introductory half hour documentary put together by Al Jazeera. The programme followed the daily lives of the protestors as they tried to obstruct the construction project or document the environmental destruction. There was rather too much repetition and not enough analysis. It had the feeling of being done to a limited budget with little obvious input from a senior editor, and with a remit to fill half an hour of programming time. Edited down to ten minutes it might have had some impact, but spun out to half an hour it outstayed its welcome. And the prospect of hearing from Noam Chomsky in the second half of the evening was not very enticing either1. The samgyeopsal in the bar next door was making me really hungry so I decided to head off during the break in search of food and get home at a sensible time rather than end up being made really grumpy by what is clearly a campaign which is important to a lot of people.
So I really didn’t get a feeling for why the issue of the naval base is one people should be interested in, which is a shame, because I’m very fond of Jeju Island. It has suffered enough under the hands of the developers and construction companies, as has much of the rest of Korea. Where once there was virgin sea shore, now there are concrete tetrapods everywhere. But I did not get a feeling for why I should be concerned about this particular construction project.
So here’s some advice for going about publicising the issues around the Gangjeong naval base. Some of the suggestions are observations on the Al Jazeera documentary and comments made by some of the campaigners during course of the evening, others relate to arguments I’d like to hear or questions I would want answered before I put on the yellow campaign T-shirt.
Here goes, and please take these in the spirit they were meant, as constructive suggestions for building a better case to convince an uninformed and / or possibly sceptical audience.
Do provide plenty of analysis, explanation and background. For example:
- Do try to provide the official government view of the reasons for building the base. And then feel free to analyse, criticise and demolish them. And if the authorities haven’t got an explanation for why the base is needed, say so.
- In the absence of an official government party line, do try to understand why there might be valid strategic reasons why Korea might want a naval base on the South of Jeju Island (the current Wikipedia article, which seems to be drafted from very much from the conservative viewpoint, would be a good starting point). And then argue against them. If you make the point that the South coast of Jejudo is a long way from North Korea who are the South’s most obvious antagonists, make sure you don’t call the DPRK South Korea’s “Main Enemy”. DPRK stopped being that in 2004 under the Kim Dae-jung administration, though reasonably enough were reinstated as an enemy after the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeongpyeong.
- Do try to give a bit of the history. Under whose presidency was the decision to build the base? What were the reasons for that decision? How did the navy come to own the land on which the base is being built and is the ownership legal or not? What alternative sites were considered? Explain how the local opposition developed, and in what respects it has been ignored.
- Do make sure that the environmental and other reasons for opposition to the base are fully laid out and explained. The Al Jazeera documentary spent far too much time following one protestor in his daily swim into the naval base construction area, and virtually no time explaining what was special about the location.
- If the rocks on which the naval base is being built have some special historical, ecological or mythological significance, do explain what that significance is. The Gureombi rocks (구럼비 바위) near Gangjeong clearly meant something to the locals, but with no clear explanation of what this was, the documentary came close to portraying the protestors as eccentric rock-huggers.
- If you’re going to use historical footage to provide context, do make 100% sure it’s relevant context and explain why you are using it. The documentary included footage purporting to relate to the 1948 Jeju massacre. Yes, it was terrible and created psychological scars which are still evident today2. But what was the relevance of the clip to the Gangjeong issue? The implication of the commentary seemed to be that because the US backed the Syngman Rhee government, they supported the brutal actions of Rhee’s thugs in Jeju. This may well be true (though the US was often having to restrain Rhee when it came to his eagerness to provoke the North). But were we supposed to conclude that the overruling of local opposition to the Jeju naval base was somehow equivalent to the 4:3 incident? That the US is behind it all? That the acts of the police and security guards in Gangjeong are equivalent to the murder and rape committed by Rhee’s thugs? Really, the point of the historical footage of the Jeju massacre was not made clear.3
- If you’re going to say such things as protestor X has been “imprisoned without trial”, when X was subject to an injunction not to go anywhere near the naval base, an injunction which he promptly intentionally broke on many occasions, make it clear (if such is the case) that another trial for breach of injunction is necessary under Korean law before the offender goes to prison, and thus that the authorities have acted illegally.
- And while on the subject of illegality, some websites which oppose the naval base claim that the construction project itself is illegal. It would be helpful to set out what laws have been broken by the authorities in constructing the base. An equal number of websites seem to claim that the protest itself is illegal. It might be helpful to disprove this, or at least make the point that natural justice justifies peaceful protest.
- Feel free to emphasise the beauty of the area. The Al Jazeera piece didn’t really do that very well at all. A few photos like this would do:
Don’t assume your audience is anti-American. The audience you want to convert is just as likely to be neutral to pro-American as anti-American. Biased language will alienate a neutral audience. For example:
- Don’t use phrases like “American expansionism” as a possible motivation behind the building of the base – after all it wasn’t American fishermen who butchered a Korean coastguard last year, and it’s not the Americans who are disputing oil exploration rights with the Vietnamese or ownership of the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines. If the Americans are behind the building of the base, fine (or not fine, depending on your viewpoint). But the word “expansionism” is loaded. Chomsky articulates the arguments well in his video.
- Don’t put scare quotes around the word “defence” in the phrase “US missile defence system”. And probably in the same vein “so-called missile defence system” should be avoided too.
- Don’t take it as read that your audience will accept that it’s the Americans who are behind everything when it comes to South Korea’s military. You’ll need to explain some of the background to the US-ROK military relationship including things like Operational Control agreements and the annual joint military exercises. (But think very carefully before introducing any discussion of the extent of US acquiescence / involvement in incidents like Kwangju as this will raise the emotional temperature of the argument without pushing it forward).
And maybe a final Don’t (which probably more than anything else caused me to carp at the evening):
- Don’t expect people to listen sympathetically to a campaign (overlooking the above shortcomings) when they are hungry and the smell of freshly barbecuing samgyeopsal and bulgogi is wafting in from next door. It was really good of the Old Justice to provide some tasty snacks for the occasion, but you needed to be on the right table in order to get them!
All these dos and don’ts might seem rather tedious, but the Al Jazeera documentary fell short of anything that could be used to communicate the issues to a sceptical audience. It was fine as a vehicle to encourage the converted but only served to bore or even alienate a neutral to sceptical observer.
I’m sure the Jeju campaigners have something better up their sleeves and I encourage them to produce it.
- A brief report from the BBC’s Lucy Williamson on the issue (including video), 3 Sept 2011
- Having since watched the video, it’s much more reasonable than I was expecting. Available here.
- I remember chatting last year to a Jeju-based journalist, photographer and art critic who told me, out of the blue, that he hated Americans because of the “4:3 incident”. Fortunately I was in the middle of reading Mandogi’s Ghost so I knew that he was referring to the Jeju massacre
- Surfing the web since last Tuesday, I discover that possibly the rationale for showing the clip was that in January 2005 Jeju was declared an “Island of World Peace” by the Central Government, effectively as an apology for the 1948 massacre. And the argument would then be that it’s odd to build a new naval base on “Peace Island”. If that point was made by the Al-Jazeera documentary, I missed it.