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On this encore addition of Making Contact, we head to Soseongri, a small village nestled in the mountains of Seongju County. There, grandmas and grandpas in the 70s, 80s, and 90s have gone from quietly farming to organizing daily protests and blockades to stop THAAD. THAAD is part of a missile defense system that gives the U.S. the ability to carry out a nuclear first strike.
The region has historically been Koreas conservative stronghold, but with the deployment of THAAD, people are re-evaluating the history theyve been taught their entire lives.
Archival audio is from the U.S. National Archives, AP Archives, U.S. State Department, and U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.
Special Thanks to Io Sunwoo, Juyeon Rhee, and Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans.
Photo Credit: Stop THAAD Alliance
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- + Rain – Jio Im and Judy Jun
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Ghosts of the Korean War: Stop THAAD
MUSIC +Rain – Jio Im and Judy Jun
HOST: Hey there, this is Marie Choi. Youre listening to Making Contact.
I went to Korea in May, expecting to find a story about the candlelight movement that ousted President Park Geun Hye, and the political shifts that are taking place on the peninsula. Instead, I found a country grappling with its ghosts.
In Part 1 of this series, we went to Gwangju, the city at the heart of Koreas peoples movements.
Today, were headed to Gyungsangbukdo, in the southeast.
MUSIC ????? Instrumental
HOST: Politically, its like the deep South of Korea. Its historically been the base of support for U.S.-backed military dictators. Its where Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan grew up, and the region benefited most from infrastructure projects and industrial development under the military regimes. Today, Gyungsangbukdo continues to support right-wing nationalist politicians, and is known for being deeply anti-communist.
But with the deployment of THAAD, part of the US missile defense system, things are beginning to change.
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HOST: THAAD is being deployed in Sosongri, a small village nestled in the mountains of Seongju County. The entire village could fit in 2 or 3 city blocks. And almost all the residents are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Farming towns like this, made up primarily of elders: its typical for rural Korea these days. A century of colonial rule, industrial development and free trade agreements have taken a toll. Its nearly impossible to make a living farming, and waves of young people have left the countryside, searching for work in bigger cities.
But Seongju County, the area surrounding Sosongri, is something of an exception. Farmers there have been able to survive by growing a regional specialty, chamae, small, sweet, yellow-striped melons.
Its the Korea that you hear about in old folk songs: rolling hills, forests, small rice paddies, and clear streams. An old pickup truck drives through the town each day, announcing over a bullhorn what theyre selling that day.
But life in this quiet village has been turned upside down by THAAD.
AMBI Sosongri Town Hall
HOST: I meet grandmas and grandpas in the town hall, which has been transformed into a protest camp and 24-hour blockade. Around 20 of them have gathered for their daily study session.
That day, theyre practicing protest songs.
SHIN DONG OK: I was born here [bed down under host]
HOST: Shin Dong Ok is the head of the village elders group. His short, thick hair is more salt than pepper and creases crinkle around his mouth and eyes as he talks and laughs. He wears thick glasses and speaks with a deep regional accent.
He was born and raised in Sosongri. Back then, people planted rice and barley by hand; but it was too hard to make a living. So he moved to a nearby city and found work in the maintenance department at a U.S. military base. When he grew older, he wanted to return to his hometown.
Today, hes in his 80s. Before THAAD came, he and his wife spent their days growing chili peppers, perilla, chives. They would get together with the other town elders to play hwa-tu and drink.
Everyone I meet there talks about how well they got along, and how fun it was to live together. Now, they spend most of their days organizing blockades and rallies.
SHIN DONG OK: We hadnt heard anything about the thing called THAAD. Not even the name. But we know it was a weapon. We cant even pronounce it: whether its THAD or THAAD.
So they said its coming to our country somewhere around here. Then suddenly it came to the Sosongri golf course.
And they didnt even say one word about it to us. Then what are we supposed to do?
Theres an old saying: In the middle of the night, a wooden roller comes flying at you. Thats how suddenly they decided to put THAAD in the Sosongri golf course.
HOST: THAAD is part of a Missile Defense system that was created to allow the United States to carry out a nuclear first strike. It sets up a shield, so that the U.S. can use nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation.
People around the world recognized how dangerous it would be, for a country to have both nuclear weapons and a missile defense system. So, in 1972, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and agreed not to develop these systems.
But with the election of Ronald Reagan, everything changed.
RONALD REAGAN: I call upon the scientific community in our country, those that gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace. [bed down under host]
HOST: Reagan pitched missile defense as a project for peace and poured over 100 billion tax dollars into the project.
Shortly after 9/11, George W. Bush officially pulled out of the ABM Treaty
GEORGE W. BUSH: The U.S. is withdrawing from this almost 30-year old treaty.
HOST: And the U.S. began deploying missile defense systems around the world.
Asia became a focal point after President Barack Obamas election when then-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton began focusing U.S. military and economic resources on controlling the trillions of dollars in trade that flows through China, Japan, and Southeast Asia each year.
HILLARY CLINTON: In the 21st century, the worlds strategic and economic center of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific.
HOST: She called it the Pacific Pivot. At a private speech for Goldman Sachs in 2013, Clinton threatened to ring China with missile defense if China did not contain North Korea.
THAAD is part of that ring of missiles around China. And for the halmonis and harabojis of Sosongri, THAAD has meant many sleepless nights.
SOSONGRI HALMONIS: Im feeling anxious. And while Im sleeping, I think they might make an announcement that they are trying to bring THAAD in, so I cant get deep sleep.
This thing THAAD has to go. For us, thats our goal: to send THAAD back to the U.S.
SHIN DONG OK: The grandmas, they dont have power. Thats why they sent it here. But they wont lay down and die because they dont have strength. A lot of supporters came.
HOST: Supporters came from all over. People who had been opposing THAAD in Seongju and Gimchon. The Won Buddhists for whom the mountain THAAD is being deployed on is a sacred site. Members of peoples organizations in Gwangju.
The protests transformed Sosongri.
HOST: The whole road is just strung with banners. From the fences, from the trees, everywhere, saying Go THAAD, come peace.
HOST: Visitors paint rocks with colorful messages of support, and pile them on the sides of the road. The small parking lot in front of the town hall has been turned into a protection camp with a stage and communal kitchen.
HOST: On the road leading up the mountain to the THAAD deployment site, theyve got tables and stacks of brightly-colored plastic stools set up to blockade the road. People are there 24/7. They take shifts, stopping each car that tries to go through to make sure they arent police or soldiers, carrying supplies for THAAD. During the week, congregations of Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, and Won Bulgyo members come by the busload to hold impromptu religious ceremonies in the middle of the road.
Because of the protests and blockades, the military had been forced to bring equipment into the site by helicopter because they couldnt access the roads.
But in April, at a time when Koreans had already kicked out right wing President Park Geun Hye, and had yet to elect a successor, the U.S. military rushed to install THAAD.
People had heard rumors that the military would try to deploy that night, and gathered to block the road.
SOSEONGRI HALMONIS: I was here until 2am, then went home to sleep. So I went in. And within an hour I heard the sirens. Honestly, I slept with my clothes on. And so when I heard the sirens I ran out and two of those assholes were blocking my road.
They turned the whole town upside down that time.
There were 8,000 police there. Where did they get 8,000 of them?
And so they were picking people up and moving them. Grandmas got hurt. If they called out, others would come with sticks. I got hurt.
And thats who is supposed to protect people. But that day it wasnt like that. It was like they wanted to kill us all.
HOST: That night, the police brought the first two launchers up to the deployment site. They stood shoulder to shoulder, five rows deep, forming a wall on either side of the road. Villagers and supporters pushed against the police lines. Threw water bottles over a sea of plastic helmets at the armored vehicles trying to squeak by. Over a megaphone, they yelled: this is OUR Korea.
Even though several weeks had passed since the raid, you could still feel their sense of disappointment and betrayal. That these young Korean men had turned on their elders to serve the interests of the U.S.
In Korea, the police force is made up in large part by young men who are drafted into policing as part of their mandatory military service. That day, even among the police officers, there were familiar faces: a neighbors nephew, a grandson that had come to visit over the years. After the raid, some of the police officers sent letters to the village elders, apologizing for their actions.
I asked the grandmas: in the face of all this, what are their hopes for the future?
SOSEONGRI HALMONIS: The best thing is to live just like this. We just need THAAD to go away. And were not paying a cent for it. Go ask the person who decided to bring it here to pay for money. Then tell him to F*** off and go away.
SHIN DONG OK: She was asking how we want Korea to be in the future.
SOSEONGRI HALMONIS: It will be good if theres no THAAD.
SHIN DONG OK: We want to live without war. A world without war.
SOSEONGRI HALMONIS: We want to use our own hands to farm, and eat, and live. Just get rid of THAAD.
HOST: In Sosongri, people said over and over again that THAAD is a weapon of war. And by bringing in weapons of war, you are calling for war. Isnt that common sense?
Some of the elders here were teenagers when the Korean War broke out. Theyre part of the last living generation to experience the War.
In the U.S., the war is a footnote buried in our history books, casually referred to as the Forgotten War.
MUSIC ??? ? / ??? Judy Jun
HOST: The Korean War has been brewing since the end of World War 2. After dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. soldiers divided Korea along the 38th parallel into North and South, and designated the area below the 38th parallel as an American occupation zone.
When full-scale war broke out in the summer of 1950, Korea became a testing ground for the U.S. to hone the brutal tactics and technologies that they would later unleash on people around the world. The U.S. practiced things like saturation bombing in the South; and in the North, designed bombing campaigns to exhaust the population. Within the first 2 years of the war, the US had already destroyed every city, industrial area, and town in the North – so they began bombing irrigation dams, flooding farmlands to cause mass starvation.
Along with bombs, the U.S. poured 600,000 tons of napalm over the country. Napalm that would burn through skin, muscle, and bone. It burned so hot, it would suck the oxygen out of the air, suffocating everyone within the strike zone.
Grace Cho is a historian and wrote extensively about the war in her book: Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and The Forgotten War.
GRACE CHO: The summer of 1950 was unusually hot. This is how survivors of the war remember it regardless of what temperatures actually registered on the thermometer. It was the first hot war of the Cold War, and entire villages were evacuated. Families gathered children and grandparents at a moments notice and carried sacks of rice and pieces of their homes on their backs. They walked south along paths that would soon be well worn by the millions of displaced persons. They packed up and traveled down the length of the peninsula toward Busan and then northward again, waded across rivers, and watched their children drown, finally to return to earth that had been scorched and to ghostly piles of ashes that had once been homes.
HOST: What they didnt know was that the U.S. military had been given complete authority to stop all civilian traffic in any direction to place fire on them including bombing and strafing fire from low-flying aircraft.
There was no difference between Koreans living in the North, and those living in the South, so the U.S., unable to distinguish who the enemy was, indiscriminately killed people seeking refuge.
One of the most well-known massacres of civilians is the one that took place at Nogeunri in 1950. There, U.S. planes gunned down 400 civilian refugees, many of them families with young children.
GRACE CHO: The heat that summer was particularly memorable for what it did to the flesh that littered the landscape. During the days and weeks after Nogeunri, the few survivors returned to the site of the massacre to gather the remains of their family members. Hee-sook was sixteen in the summer of 1950. She escaped after witnessing the deaths of her mother, father, sister and niece. Perhaps it had been the few words in English she called out to the Americans that had prevented them from shooting her. She continued walking southward, dazed, hungry, and encrusted with blood, her white dress turned stiff and brown. She came to the Naktong River, where the American military were selectively allowing refugees to cross the river, but only if they were young and female. People were saying everywhere that GIs did bad things to women. Hee-sook turned around and walked back to Nogeun-ri.
It had rained a lot that summer, so where the massacre had taken place there were pools of stagnant bloodied water that contained the dead. There she waded through the stench of decomposing corpses and found the body of her father. It seemed that the bones and flesh moved separately Ivirtually scooped up the remains of my father like mucus with the cup of my bare hands.
HOST: Nogeunri was just one of 37 massacres documented in the South. There were countless more in the North. The active targeting of civilians is part of what made the war in Korea different from wars the world had seen before. It got so bad that just one month in, Colonel Turner Rogers wrote a memo saying:
COL. TURNER ROGERS MEMO VOICEOVER: Our operations involving the strafing of civilians is sure to receive wide publicity and may cause embarrassment to the U.S. Air Force and U.S. government.
HOST: This awareness didnt change the militarys practices. Instead, the Pentagon stopped documenting the bombings of villages and started referring to these villages as military targets to avoid negative press.
Two years later, officials from China, North Korea, and the U.S. signed an armistice agreement: a temporary ceasefire on armed conflict. But a peace treaty to end the war was never signed.
ARCHIVAL: We have stopped the shooting
HOST: Since then, the ongoing war enabled a buildup of U.S. military bases, weapons, and troops in the South, and the development of a nuclear program in the North.
For Korean people, the war unleashed trauma that would be passed on for generations.
So for those who experienced the Korean War the idea that war is something people would call for, or invite in – its unthinkable.
AMBI Gimchon Candlelight fade in
HOST: In Seongju and Gimchon, small cities located on opposite sides of the mountain, people have been holding candlelight rallies to protest THAAD every night for over a year.
AMBI Stop THAAD Song
HOST: In Gimchon a group of moms and kids dance to an upbeat pop song about opposing THAAD. Behind them, even more gather, light each others candles and catch up.
Shi Uh Yeon has lived in Gimchon his whole life.
SHI UH YEON: At first, people were like, what is THAAD? They didnt know what it was. They would say that if you opposed THAAD, you were a North Korean, a sympathizer, a commie. The biggest problem was the media. When THAAD was first announced, they said it was to block North Korea, so people thought, oh, if we dont have this, there wont be anything to block North Korea when they invade. But as time passed, people came to know more about THAAD and began to oppose it.
HOST: In Gimchon and the areas surrounding the THAAD deployment site, this is peoples primary concern: that THAAD was never meant to protect Koreans. Its location in Seongju County means that the system could not intercept missiles targeting Seoul; the area where half of South Koreas population lives.
If anything, the U.S. installed the THAAD radar to spy on China. Since it was announced, China began a low-level trade war with South Korea; boycotting Korean products and even Korean pop stars. Its put South Korea in the familiar and uncomfortable position of having to navigate between the interests of two opposing powers. And a big part of the nightly protests has been about asserting that Korean people should determine their own future.
SHI UH YEON: In the beginning 1,500, almost 2,000 people would come out every night. But as time went on, it became harder to come out. Last winter there were about 150 of us who came every day through the snow and rain. On average, there are 150 people who come out each night. These are the people who are protecting Gimchon, and Korea, and the world.
HOST: For those 150 people, everything has changed.
SHI UH YEON: There are no more weekends, free time, nights. But on the other hand, I met a lot of people who I feel stick together more than brothers and sisters, than family. We will continue to live together with more jung. So even more people have concern for each other, and take care of each other.
HOST: In many ways, its the community thats formed around opposing THAAD that has made it possible for people to continue protesting. During busy seasons, people take care of each others farms. Local bakers send bread and rice cakes for people to share at protests. They roast sweet potatoes over make-shift ovens and hand them out on cold nights. Even the kids write letters to the President and draw pictures about stopping THAAD.
But the biggest change may be in how people are thinking, not only about THAAD, but about the history that theyve been taught their whole lives.
GIMCHON IMO: Until now, we only received a partial education about the US. In writing migook (the US), we used the Chinese character for beautiful for the mi. We learned from when we were young kids that the US is an angel nation that protects our country without asking for anything in return.
But having this experience, seeing our land become US military land. The US behaving like everything is about their bottom line. I thought, we really dont know anything about the US.
So, I would like the American people to move away from this dream-like thinking. Like they believe theyre protecting world peace. And if you watch a lot of movies like Superman, it always looks like the US is a country that protects world peace. So they use these movies to make people around the world believe that. Instead of that, I wish they would make cultural works that show the real image of the US.
People around the world know that the US is not like that, but even todays news they say, the US came here as an invited guest and theyre doing this and that. But weve come to believe that this is a lie. Many people have woken up to the reality of the US. And theres still many more people who need to wake up to this.
HOST: These questions: What if North Korea isnt the enemy? What if the U.S. isnt actually protecting South Korea?
What is possible when we let go of these ideas?
MUSIC July Jio Im
HOST: When I was in Sosongri, it was the week of 5-18 the anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising and Massacre.
People talked about how they hadnt taken much interest in it at the time. That they had just believed what the government had told them. And their eyes brimmed with tears as they shared how sorry they felt. That they had been on the wrong side of history.
It was now, for the first time, that they were learning to sing songs like March of the Beloved. And learning the truth of what had taken place in Gwangju.
A few days later, in Gwangju, I met the women of the Gwangju May Womens Association. They were embroidering brightly colored butterflies and painting the lyrics to March of the Beloved onto a canvas for the people of Sosongri.
From the Uprising until now, our priority has always been reunification. We know its not easy to talk about these things, and we want the people of Sosongri to feel our warmth they said.
In June, the women traveled to Sosongri and stayed with the elders there. They shared stories and sang songs together.
In these moments, I saw that people could repair the gaping wounds left by history. That they could untangle each others han and break free of the cycles of war, occupation, and division that have shaped Koreas history. And maybe one day, all of us: divided and displaced by war, empire, militarism – that we might find each other and create a different kind of peace.
MUSIC ?? ??? ? ????- ???
Since I left Sosongri, a lot has happened.
The newly elected President, Moon Jae In, who had promised during his campaign to re-evaluate THAAD, visited the U.S. and assured Trump that the South was committed to deploying THAAD. The Sosongri grandmas and grandpas have been attacked by right wing nationalist groups and police. Despite huge mobilizations and blockades, the military installed the remaining launchers. Shortly afterward, a man from a nearby town went to Seoul and set himself on fire in protest.
People have been talking about the psychological trauma of it all. But more than anything else, they want people to know that they havent given up. Theyre still fighting to give future generations a world without war.
Thats it for this edition of Making Contact.
ou can learn more about the struggle to Stop THAAD at our website: radioproject.org.
You can find us on Facebook and Twitter where our handle is Making_Contact.
Special thanks to Io Sunwoo for chasing after my 3-year old while I taped interviews, and to Juyeon Rhee and Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans for their support throughout this process.
The voiceovers you heard were done by David Jang Jae Rhee, Juyeon Rhee, J.T. Takagi, Juhyun Park, Liz Suk, and Claude Marks.
Todays show included original music by Jio Im and Judy Jun. It also included tracks from New Mingjung Songs by Lee Hyung Joo, Oh Jae Hwan, and Hwang Kyung Ha.
The Making Contact Team includes: Lisa Rudman, Marie Choi, RJ Lozada, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Vera Tykulsker, and Sabine Blaizin.
Im Marie Choi. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!