If you drive about an hour south of Seoul, you will find yourself next to the largest US military construction project in the world. As the capital’s metropolitan region gives way to the Korean countryside, rice paddies, ginseng fields, rows of hot peppers, corn, and tobacco, and peach orchards replace roads and buildings. Soon, though, these orchards are overshadowed by the constant hum of planes landing and taking off from the most active airfield in Asia. Backyard vegetable gardens grow right up to the walls of the base.
Out of this militarized landscape, local activists and townspeople have carved a “war and brutality free zone,” the fruit of a multi-year struggle to save the town of Daechuri from destruction by the expansion of the United States’ Camp Humphreys. Their protest is one bead in the string of anti-US base protests circling the Pacific Rim, from Okinawa and Hawaii to Guam and the Philippines.
Though the village of Daechuri was ultimately destroyed, the creative and militant protest it inaugurated still stands as a bulwark against continued militarization in the Pacific.
“The Crown Jewel of Overseas Installations”
From the end of the Korean War in 1953 until very recently, Yongsan Garrison — located in the heart of Seoul — served as the United States Armed Forces’ headquarters in Korea.
Now, however, US forces are leaving Seoul for the city of Pyongtaek, less than an hour south of the capital, as part of a decade-long plan to reorient US forces in Korea by consolidating nearly forty existing bases into this new super-base. Notably, it will also relocate the US military presence away from the North Korean border and toward China, just across the Yellow Sea — part of the larger “pivot to Asia” policy begun under the Obama administration.
Over the past decade, the United States and South Korean governments have partnered to triple the size of the base — the largest construction project in the history of the US Department of Defense. When it’s fully staffed, Camp Humphreys will be the biggest and most populous overseas US military base in the world. The new footprint encompasses 14.7 million square meters of mostly farming land and small villages around Pyongtaek. The expanded base — encircled by a 23-kilometer walled and barbed wire perimeter — will boast the second-largest dental facility in the US Defense Department and a “supergym” that is among the biggest in the US Army.
“Undoubtedly, this installation is the crown jewel of overseas installations in the Department of Defense,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal gushed at the inaugural ribbon-cutting ceremony last Tuesday.
“It Is Time for the US to Leave Us Alone”
Wooden sculptures of traditional village guardians stand at the entrance to Daechuri Art and Peace Village, the new town constructed after the destruction of the original Daechuri.
Flowers bloom in a garden outside the main community center, which announces in Korean and English that the space is a “war and brutality free zone,” and a mural of falling bombs turning into plants adorns a nearby wall. Inside the center, someone is sorting potatoes, someone is cooking, and in the library and art room a planning meeting is underway. Photographs, paintings, printings, and weaving projects cover the walls, most of which depict the village struggle against militarization.
Daechuri was a farming village of about eighty households. In 2001, Camp Humphreys announced its plans for expansion, and in collaboration with the South Korean government, offered villagers compensation in exchange for their land. The community refused. They launched a five-year struggle to save their village, drawing national support and becoming a central node in the network of anti-militarization and peace activism in Korea.
The history of Daechuri’s battle epitomizes Korea’s history as the battleground for competing empires. During the Japanese colonial occupation in the first half of the twentieth century, the land around Daechuri was claimed for an imperial military base. After the US military took over a newly divided South Korea from the retreating Japanese at the end of World War II, the bases simply changed hands. After a three-year US military occupation and the destructive Korean War — which ran from 1950 to 1953 — presidents of the newly independent South Korea welcomed the US military presence as both a Cold War deterrent and a source of much-needed resources.
For local people, however, this arrangement has come at a steep cost. As feminist activists and scholars have argued, systems of military sexual slavery under Japanese rule easily transformed into institutionalized military prostitution around US bases, creating a violent and exploitative environment for women. In Daechuri, it meant the village faced continual razing, removal, and rebuilding.
Rice farmer Cho Sun Yeh was one of those who found herself facing, in 2001, the second threat of eviction. After her first home was bulldozed during the Korean War to make way for the new US installation, she and her husband built a new home a quarter mile from the base.
Informed that this home would be destroyed too, she told journalists in 2001, “I gave my land up once already, and I am not about to do it again. It is time for the US to leave us alone.” She and her extended family of seventeen refused to leave their home. “My memories are here, my life is here. I should not have to give that up for anyone.”
In Daechuri and the neighboring village of Dodori, expansion not only threatened homes and communities but also rice farmers’ livelihoods. And it laid bare the anti-democratic collusion between Seoul and Washington DC, which had seemingly decided local residents’ fates without their input. What began as a local struggle in the villages around Pyongtaek soon became a national struggle involving 120 labor, student, feminist, farmer, peace and unification, and religious organizations across Korea.
Daechuri served as the central hub of the struggle, with nightly people’s assemblies and candlelit vigils. Representatives of national groups relocated to the town, squatting in buildings that had been abandoned and claimed for destruction. International antiwar activists, including Cindy Sheehan, visited Daechuri to express their solidarity.
Beginning in 2003, activists organized rallies, peace festivals, and marches in front of bases. They squatted in their half-abandoned village to prevent the land from being seized, defended their fields from riot police, and planned national marches. At the height of the struggle in 2006, a caravan of tractors toured South Korea to raise awareness of the Daechuri resistance.
Art and creative work became a central form of protest. Wooden bomb sculptures, studded with menacing picks and shovels, took the place of scarecrows in the fields. Murals, poems, and musical compositions covered all the walls of the village — testimonies of community life, resilience, anger, and hope. Villagers wove giant effigies of tanks and human figures out of branches and set them ablaze during protests.
Art made the struggle visible and colorful and accessible, giving each activist a way to describe why they fought so hard, what they fought for, and what was at stake as their village was slated for destruction.
By May 2006, the South Korean and United States governments were losing patience.
In a Senate hearing, then–New York senator Hillary Clinton expressed exasperation at South Korea’s “historical amnesia,” arguing that Koreans were losing their “understanding of the importance of our position there and what we have done over so many decades to provide them the freedom that they have enjoyed.” (Clinton’s comment only proved that amnesia proliferated among American elites: democracy in South Korea was won in the 1980s through a mass popular struggle against US-supported dictatorships.)
Determined to push through the base and stop the growing international movement, the South Korean government brought its full force to Daechuri. On May 4, 11,500 police officers in riot gear and unarmed troops descended on the village at dawn, using clubs and water cannons to clear the area. Activists fought back with rocks and bamboo sticks, and several hundred barricaded themselves in the top floors of the village elementary school, which had been repurposed into movement headquarters, in a stand against final eviction.
Riot police eventually broke down the barricades and hauled protesters out by force, some bleeding and in stretchers. In one photograph of the final eviction, a woman hugs a window lattice, screaming as soldiers pry her from it; in another, a man lies prone as riot police swarm around him, blood pooling around his head.
In the wake of the violent expulsion, the state erected a twenty-seven-kilometer razor-wire fence around the village.
By 2007, with only a negotiated ending in sight and many exhausted, the government and military negotiated an agreement to cede the land but build a new village in its place. Where Daechuri once sat now stands a complex of low-slung base storage buildings, a latticework of electrical towers and power lines threading overhead.
A Museum for the Future
Though activists failed to save their town, the Art and Peace Village in new Daechuri is evidence of what they did achieve.
About half of the residents of the old town occupy the new village. The houses are in Korean and Western styles with attractive yards and a central playground and park, but, as our guide tells us, “there is much trauma” among residents. To attend to the sense of loss, the new village creates spaces for peace education and creative work to ward off never-ending mourning.
The north end of the village holds a metal warehouse painted with a giant white owl, part carpentry school and part movement museum. In the middle of the space a giant sculpture rises, a bricolage of protest and memory, grieving and playful refusal. Layered atop a tractor, the sculpture holds the tools of protest: repurposed microphones and amplifiers, hand-painted windsocks, military “Keep Out” signs torn from the fence, loudspeakers, flags, peace signs woven from crop leaves.
The sculpture also holds the tools of memory: painted boxes full of old photographs of the residents and ancestors of Daechuri, playing and walking by the water in the early 1900s, in the 1970s, in the 1990s. Black-and-white studio portraits of a couple in traditional dress sit next to color snapshots of couples kissing.
And the sculpture holds the tools of return: the shovels and rice mill and handplows of the village, still caked with dirt.
At the village museum, struggle and militarization do not determine the narrative pacing. People’s lives do. Magnifying glasses hang next to framed collages of photographs of Daechuri before the struggle, encouraging you to spend time with them, look for friends, attend to the specificities. These give way to photographs of villagers climbing aboard a bulldozer to prevent it from being used, leaning in silence against the shields of a line of riot police, holding candles at one of the many nightly assemblies, yelling.
The museum refuses to let the story end with the village’s destruction, and in this way it is a museum of the future. Photographs of the museum’s construction and portrait paintings of current residents take up the final wall. “I believe someday this army is going to leave” a poem on the wall offers. “And I will get there first, as I was the last to leave the village.”
In the adjacent carpentry school, there is the sound of saws, and the sweet smell of sawdust is in the air. Things are being built anew, and the tools of return might yet again be used.