I recently watched Boon Joon-Ho’s “The Host,” a South Korean monster flick with familiar Hollywood conventions but unique Korean characteristics and context.
In it, a sea monster rises out of the Han River, attracting a curious crowd that begins to feed it. Suddenly, it attacks, runs amok, and pulls a girl into the river, launching the plot of a ragtag family’s struggle to save its youngest member from a sewer.
Although the monster provides the immediate conflict in the movie, it kills and kidnaps unthinkingly—not because it is willfully evil—and thus is not the real antagonist of the film. Rather, the monster serves as a proxy for the complex and imbalanced relationship Korea has with the United States. This metaphor is illustrated in the beginning when a waxy-looking American scientist orders a Korean lab assistant to dump 200 bottles of formaldehyde into the Han River. The Korean protests, the American dismisses it, and the Korean complies out of deference to authority. It is this deference that ultimately spawns the deadly monster.
In real life, the recent but yet little-known government crackdown in a village called Gangjeong on Jeju Island hopefully will not invoke similar themes. Koreans are very familiar with Jeju Island, designated by the Korean government as the “Island of World Peace” in 2005, as a popular vacation spot. Even I remember family vacations here, eating clementines on the tour bus while my parents shopped for local pearls and looked at stone carvings. When I grew old enough to appreciate Jeju’s culture beyond its clementines, I realized that the island was a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known for its matriarchal culture of female deep-sea divers.
Since January, villagers have protested against the construction of a $920.5 million naval base that the South Korean government claims is crucial to the nation’s security interests. When completed in 2014, the naval base will host 20 warships that can protect Korea’s maritime trade and its territorial claims in waters bordered by other Asian nations. Jeju villagers, activists and journalists have denounced the naval base as the militarization of one of Korea’s most peaceful locales in the service of an arms race. Last Friday, Korean riot police detained nearly three dozen protesters camping inside the construction area. According to The Korea Times, protesters had staged a sit-in with their bodies chained to a six-story bamboo watchtower. Citizens protested that their consent was not obtained in a fair, democratic process, and that the construction of a naval base will compromise the peace on Jeju Island.
But Koreans are also suspicious that the naval base will serve America’s interests in Southeast Asia rather than their own. Jeju Island could serve as a strategic point for the U.S. to counter Chinese expansionism in the East China Sea, which is claimed by multiple Asian countries and is rumored to contain valuable oil and mineral deposits. South Korea, however, is more threatened by North Korea—for its recent military provocations, the shelling of Yeonpeong Island last November and its nuclear weapons—than by China, its largest trading partner.
The controversy illustrates the shifting in Korean public sentiment regarding the country’s longstanding security ties with the U.S., dating back to the 1950 Korean War. On one hand, America is still Korea’s largest ally with over 30 military bases built in key cities like Seoul, Busan and Osan. I spent eight years living on the Yongsan base in Seoul and witnessed firsthand various protests that showed the increasing uneasiness younger Koreans feel about the wide U.S. military presence in their cities.
Allowing Jeju Island to become a strategic buffer against China to protect U.S. security interests places it directly in the line of fire between two larger countries, and Koreans are wary. The Korean government has tried to downplay the regional implications of this naval base. It markets it as an “eco-friendly” port where luxury cruise ships will dock.
But the recent crackdown on protesters shows the willingness of the Korean government to involve its citizens in a risky regional arms race without their consent. If the building of a naval base is really so innocuous, why not put it to a legitimate vote? The military claims that a majority of Gangjeong villagers had voted in 2007 for building the naval base, calling it the most democratic process in the history of the country’s defense projects. But The Korea Times recounts the village general assembly meeting in 2007 as a sham. Fewer than 100 of the village’s 1,000 residents attended, since the meeting was not widely advertised, and voting was carelessly done through clapping. The town officially reversed this decision by referendum 10 days afterwards but the government refused to acknowledge this.
In “The Host,” it was an American scientist who made the order to dump chemicals into the Han River, but it was the Korean lab assistant who complied. Similarly, the Korean government may be under exogenous pressure to strengthen its defenses, but the decision to do so and the manner in which it is done ought to remain a decision by the Korean people.
Jessica Kim is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday.
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