By Rick Ruffin
If the Korean people can stop the construction of a $1-billion naval base on Jeju Island then they are better ― and stronger ― than I realize.
But the status quo has history on its side. All over the world, the people have rarely overturned a government policy that does not serve their immediate interest.
The Iraq War is a classic example. Whereas most Americans oppose the war and wish for nothing more than a quick withdrawal of all combatants, the war goes on, and on, and on. Why is this?
Another example is the current proposed spending cuts to the education, healthcare and welfare infrastructures in America. Most Americans oppose cuts to education. They want better access to health care.
But listening to the Republicans, headed by House Speaker John Boehner, one would think quite the opposite. The Tea Party, and the radicals on the right, do not represent the masses, but they do have unlimited access to unlimited corporate funds, and so they set the agenda.
I was recently in New York City, where I attended an exhibition by Korean artist Lee U-fan at the Guggenheim Museum. The exhibit was good, and I highly enjoyed this presentation. But there was something else, indirectly related to his work, that caught my eye.
Lee, who the Guggenheim introduces as a Japanese/Korean, spent many of his formative years living in Japan. And it was in Japan that hundreds of thousands of people ― Japanese, of course ― took to the streets and protested the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which allowed U.S. military bases on Japanese soil, making Japan part of the “Pacific Front” of the Cold War, as well as a hedge against the then expanding Vietnam Conflict.
The pictures were taken in or around 1960, and they show hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, protesting the then upcoming U.S.-Japan military alliance. I have never seen pictures of such crowds. In fact, I didn’t even know that many people could amass in one place, peacefully.
The rest, of course, is history. The plea of the people was ignored. Today, Japan is home to a startling number of U.S. military bases, and Okinawa ― according to the late Chalmers Johnson of the University of California at San Diego ― is home to the most.
Every day, or so it seems, the Japanese people come out of their homes to protest the noise and disturbances that the U.S. air force bases on Okinawa create, and every day they are ignored. It is similar to the fate of former “comfort women” here in Korea, who have assembled in front of the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday for several years, demanding an apology for the suffering they endured, only to be ignored.
In some countries such as Egypt, popular uprisings do create change. But the recent Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo begs the question: How deep, and long-lasting, will the change truly be? Will Mubarak go to jail? Will they then throw away the key?
When I first came to South Korea, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo ― both former presidents of this republic ― were in jail for crimes they committed against the Korean people. But then their sentences were reduced, and in no time, it seemed, they were set free.
In heavily saturated consumer societies such as South Korea, however, grassroots-induced change is merely a concept, and not a reality. That is because most people are too busy keeping up with the Joneses to worry about such peripheral issues as a naval base with berths for 20 warships.
All over the world governments ― infiltrated by corporations with deep pockets ― ignore the plea of the people. Drilling for gas and oil will happen in the Arctic Ocean, and there will be a catastrophic oil spill and massive loss of marine life.
The people of Nigeria will continue to live in filth and squalor at the feet of Shell Oil. America will continue to wage wars of aggression, until she runs out of money. And the Korean construction cartel, boosted with armfuls of cash, will continue to pour concrete at the behest of the highest bidder, the public be damned.
Isn’t democracy wonderful?
The writer sells fresh-squeezed juice at the Bukpyeong Five Day Folk Market in Donghae, Gangwon Province. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.