Gwangju, South Korea June 4, 2012 1:00 am
A priest in his 80s who wants the American military out of South Korea is honoured with a human-rights prize
One of South Korea's "street fathers", octogenarian Catholic priest Mun Jeong Hyeon is a leading figure among opponents of the US military's presence in the republic.
His work addresses the inequality in the two nations' relationship, with his current focus the government's construction of a naval base on Jeju, the nation's southernmost island, which he believes the Americans will use in its efforts to "contain" China - and thus bring more trouble to his homeland.
The majority of the 1,900 residents of Gangjeong, the village that the base will primarily affect, were not properly consulted, Father Mun says, so they will continue to resist the construction plan.
Resistance has already included a skirmish with police on April 3 during which Mun suffered fractured bones when he fell from a seven-metre-tall dais. Although not a native of the island, he vows to continue the fight at the villagers' invitation.
"I will continue to be there. People there are very much suppressed," the grandfatherly bearded figure told The Nation when he received this year's Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
Born in northern Jeolla province in 1940 and ordained in 1966, Mun now speaks mostly about daily clashes between the residents and "numberless" police and says many people have been arrested. The priest holds what he terms "sad masses" every day at 11am in front of the construction site.
The navy decided to construct the base in 2007 after "consulting" the villagers, he says, but only 80 people attended the public meeting.
If the base is completed, Mun fears it will further unbalance military relations between South Korea and the United States.
It was at America's direction that Korea was divided north and south at the end of the Korean War, he says.
"Since the separation, South Korea has been totally controlled by the US government militarily. Even if we want to relocate small numbers of troops, we need to ask for US permission."
South Korean citizens are famously divided in their sentiments toward the US, with both sides given to loud mass demonstrations. Mun acknowledges that many of his compatriots want to continue being dependent on US forces, even while "others like us want independence".
A journalist once asked him what he thought of the rival sides.
"Only 1 per cent of the population, and older people, engage in pro-US demonstrations," Mun replied. "When we think about the figure, they will be gone."
Pressed further on what he really knows about US policy on the Jeju Naval base, Mun points out that he's merely a Catholic priest. But he's no ordinary priest - he's a leading figure in his country's anti-US movement.
He previously took action against the US air base at Kunsan and a testing area for US army weapons. He played a key role in organising protests against the relocation of a US base in Pyeongtaek and has delivered speeches around the country against the US military presence. He was twice imprisoned for political activism in 1979 under the Park Chung Hee regime.
Amnesty International's latest annual report, released on May 24, noted that many activists and residents opposing theJeju naval base are facing civil and criminal charges. It also stated that by October 31 last year, "the police had deleted 67,300 Web posts they believed threatened national security by 'praising North Korea and denouncing the US and the government', a sharp rise from 14,430 posts in 2009".
The soft-spoken Mun becomes enraged when it's suggested that some foreigners have difficulty understanding why progressive South Koreans tend to be more pro-Pyongyang than pro-Washington. His response is passionate and lengthy.
"We are very sad seeing this peninsula divided in two. You know, we'd like to send letters to people in North Korea, but we can't. It's inhuman! We'd like to be human! We'd like to meet people from North Korea. It's too bad. We'd like to be human!
"We're supposed to be united. Who is resisting reunification? It's the US government and my conservative countrymen. We want be independent from US power. What's wrong with that?"
Mun dreams of someday, despite his advanced age, being able to take a train to Pyongyang in North Korea. "This is our dream. It's not so far from here. But who's blocking us? The USA."