SEOUL, South Korea – A nightly candlelight vigil by South Korean farmers was met with police force when a controversial U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, arrived against their wishes.
“The government assures us that this is a temporary deployment, which means it may be disassembled, or relocated but nobody believes that,” said Yoon Geumsoon, a 58-year-old Seongju farmer. “We don’t want it to be relocated, we want it gone.”
For the last 14 months, a small group of Korean melon farmers in Seongju County have organized nightly vigils and weekly protests to oppose the South Korean government’s deployment of the controversial missile defense system.
“When [President] Moon Jae-in was a candidate for the presidency he said will reconsider the deployment of THAAD and conduct an environmental evaluation,” said Jungmin Choi at World Without War. “But he deployed the remaining missiles without this procedure.”
The tension on the Korean peninsula between North Korea and the U.S. is the reason for South Korea’s rapid completion of a defense system. According to reports, North Korea is now capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the U.S. wants to be able to monitor this and possibly shoot them down, if provoked.
The Chinese government stated that the THAAD deployment in South Korea is heightening tensions in the region.
A movement is born
The anti-THAAD vigils began months before the 2016-17 “Candlelight Revolution,” protests demanding, and ultimately achieving, the impeachment of South Korean president Park Guen-hye.
Former President Park promised to allow the U.S. military to deploy THAAD in Seongju County, 300 kms south of the capital Seoul. Earlier this year, a corruption scandal jailed Park, an aide, and the heir of South Korea’s largest company; Samsung vice president Lee Jae-yong.
“We call this Moon Jae-in government the candle light government. He was elected because of the protests to oust president Park,” said Sarang Lee, a human rights activist in Seoul who participated in the protests.
There is an ongoing blockade in Seongju County, led by women in the farming community. They are attempting to halt supplies from passing through town to the THAAD missile site, located on the grounds of a former Lotte golf course.
“Now we have a full THAAD unit deployed. But the construction to make that unit permanent isn’t finished yet, so they are continuing to fight to stop the construction,” said union organizer, Wolsan Liem.
Seongju County was a conservative support base. This means it viewed U.S. – South Korean military relations positively, and is most likely the reason it was selected by former President Park to host the THAAD missile defence system, completed by current President Moon.
The farming community is now deeply disillusioned by South Korea’s political leaders, and the need for increasing militarism on the Korean peninsula.
“At first they were worried that the radars would affect their crops,” said Liem. “Once they learned more about it they knew it would increase tensions in the region.”
A blue butterfly effect
Filmmaker Emmanuel Park learned about the Seongju farmers’ protests against THAAD through media coverage. He felt compelled to document how this small farming community became a catalyst for change in South Korea.
“I was interested in what their motives were. Since I live nearby, I visited a couple of times. There was this energy I hadn’t seen in other protests before. They were really saddened and felt betrayed by the government,” he said.
Park’s film is called Blue Butterfly Effect. It’s now touring South Korea, where free community screenings are set up at other protest sites and events.
“They didn’t have any experience in activism. It was an eye opening experience for them,” Park said. “They were indifferent to these issues. But suddenly became engaged and informed and were actively doing something.”
Now a bus of Seongju County supporters, called Blue Butterfly, tours the country attempting to inform South Koreans about the need to deescalate tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Seongju farmers, like Yoon, believe nightly candlelight vigils is the only way to show South Koreans that their protest is carrying on the tradition of a country now known around the world for peaceful political protest.
Yoon and others from her generation hope to see the conditions met for reunification between the two Koreas: North and South. Not the further disintegration of relations for the sake of increasing American and South Korean militarism.
“We will never stop fighting. We know it’s time consuming work, but for the sake of peace in South Korea and for world peace we will continue our struggle,” said Yoon.