Towards a World Without War: A Conversation with Transnational Activist Jungmin Choi
In a 1995 interview between Lisa Lowe and Angela Davis, Davis states that, “A woman of color formation might decide to work around immigration issues. This political commitment is not based on the specific histories of racialized communities or its constituent members, but rather constructs an agenda agreed upon by all who are a part of it. In my opinion, the most exciting potential of women of color formations resides in the possibility of politicizing this identity–basing the identity on politics rather than politics on identity.”
“Basing the identity on politics rather than politics on identity” — I’ve quoted this passage countlessly in essays, blog posts, lectures, in private conversations, in texts. In rereading the interview, and thinking about this moment, I wanted to visit this possibility again. Identities based in politics–how might we tear at this, today?
As fascist rhetoric becomes state policy, as policings becomes politics, as they continue to consolidate and accelerate, I’ve become all the more nervous at how writers, artists, and activists maintain (inconspicuously so) the borders of the nation state as our own. Don’t get me wrong; I am not making easy equivalences or collapsing failures. Let me be concrete by discussing Korea and activism within Korea.
It has become clear to me that there is a great deal of confusion (or ignorance) as to why there are borders that demarcate Korea. Many in the global north view the North Korean state as a parody regime (the joke is on us!!!!!). Those who are critical of US imperialism may feel inclined to defend regimes that purport to fight against it. Instead of recuperating borders, governments, or any nation state, instead of conflating state policies with emergent activism, I thought it would be important to speak to activists who have been opposing neocolonialism and its wars, irrespective of missile alert warnings, and irrespective of racial and ethnic affiliations. Identities, bodies, lives based in politics.
In a cultural milieu that enacts performance art as a legal shield, situates painting to be a process of atonement, believes in the promise of conceptual oppression, I thought it would be important to direct the conversation to a different kind of orientation: direct-action activists, organizers, curators, and thinkers. People who organize politically, whose existence expands what has been imagined as transnational community, politics. My conversation with Jungmin Choi, of World Without War, will begin this series.
World Without War is an anti-war organization based in Seoul. Choi has been with the organization since 2012, and also works for My Sister’s Place, a center based in Gyeonggi-do Province that supports women in military camp towns.
Eunsong: Thank you so much for speaking with me. As you know, contemptorary publishes in English and our audience mostly resides in North America. So this interview has a direct geographical audience, but hopefully it will be more than that. I thought I would begin by situating the US’s gaze. In the US, news about Korea continues to cycle, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. Even for activists, the rhetoric is muddled: who to sympathize with and advocate for as a leftist (state leaders in North Korea? Defectors? South Korean politicians, so forth). In order to move away (and critique) these conversations I was hoping we could discuss some of your activist and organizing goals, and political desires thus far.
Jungmin: I’ve worked with World Without War since 2012, which is an organization for anti-war activists. Some have argued that certain wars have been historically just or necessary (say, against Hitler). In the case of North Korea, some have argued that a war that destroys their infrastructure could be useful, but the activists who organize with World Without War are against all categories of wars, we believe wars are a crime against humanity. To prevent war is our primary mission. And in going about our mission, we do not believe that wars are started because a megalomaniacal dictator presses a button, instead they are started because the society and the culture is constructed to move towards war. So we work to prevent the movement towards war. For example, for young men in Korea, military service is conscripted. It is said that for men, going to the military is something that everyone has to experience, at least once. So through conscription, even if no current war exists, we are trained to prepare for a war. In this case, as an anti-war activist, you might resist military service entirely (Without War works on behalf of conscientious objectors). Or if you were working for a weapons manufacturing plant like Lockheed Martin, you may stop working there, or you may work but ineffectively or lazily. We’re an organization comprising objectors and resistors.
Some people might say that we’re trying to break a hammer with an egg, and we haven’t had huge victories, but we have had some wins. For example, two years ago, we worked to stop the exportation of 최루탄 (Lachrymator, or tear gas) to Turkey and successfully halted its export to Bahrain. It’s a small step in working towards our ultimate goal, which will be achieved one day.
Eunsong: Wow that is amazing. Could you describe how you connected the Korean government to the exportation of tear gas, and also, how you were able to halt some of the exports?
Jungmin: We were able to stop the exports to Bahrain but not Turkey. There were some small changes with Turkey. Our protests did cause some problems and ultimately the Korean government decided they did not want to be blamed for the use of tear gas.
In the case of Turkey, what the government did was they decided to no longer export tear gas. However, DAEKWANG Chemical Corporation (DAEKWANG manufactures the chemicals, CNO Tech is the name of the company that sells the tear gas canisters), a firm that has been around since the Chun Doo Hwan administration in the 80s, moved to Turkey. During the 80s and up until recently, the firm made tear gas canisters for the Korean government and, as all international weapons sales are brokered by the government, their products were exported by the government. As CNO Tech has since moved its operations to Turkey, the problem of “exporting” has disappeared. On paper, Korea is no longer exporting tear gas to Turkey. But now this Korean firm is based out of Turkey. We believe this was a coordinated effort by the Korean government to dismiss the accusation of exporting tear gas. To dismiss it on paper, that is.
Eunsong: Do you know what the organizational structure of CNO tech looks like now? Is it Korean nationals working in Turkey? Or?
Jungmin: We can assume that Korean nationals are in managerial positions with Turkish people employed in non-managerial positions. Turkish activists have told me that the arrival of CNO Tech was advertised as a good thing for Turkish employment, that it was the fusion of Korean innovation and Turkish enterprise. It’s important to stress that DAEKWANG Chemical Corporation soley manufactures “anti-riot” products, and that CNO Tech sells their products.
When I went to London last September, I was on a panel with activists from Turkey to discuss the daily impact of tear gas, and how we might jointly move forward on this issue.
Eunsong: This “paper removal” or rather, paper transfer, was not the result with the tear gas exports to Bahrain. Could you describe what happened with your efforts there?
Jungmin: We were first alerted that Korean-made tear gas was being used against protesters in Bahrain through a Bahraini activist living in London. They told us about the tear gas, and how it was killing protesters. They asked us if we could work to stop it from being exported. After receiving this request, we began to organize. We invited Bahraini activists from “Bahrain Watch” to Korea to share their stories, and organized their interviews with media outlets. That’s how organizing on this issue started.
As all international weapons sales must be approved by the Korean government, we asked the Korean government to halt the exportation of weapons and to take responsibility for their international use, which was to abuse, hurt, and kill protesters.
There is a Korean law that weapons cannot be deployed to torture, but the law has been loosely applied as being limited to domestic encounters, allowing the Korean government to overlook international abuses.
Eunsong: Coordinating with media outlets and involving public scrutiny seems to be a strategy you deploy in your organizing. But it also sounds like your organizing pressed a legal contradiction, questioning the veracity of the law. Do you think this was most effective, pressuring the government to defend their hypocrisy, and questioning how their image upholds in light of their actions?
Jungmin: Yes. The Korean government paid lip service to human rights, and they wouldn’t admit that exporting tear gas to Bahrain became a PR issue, but that’s what it was. Attacking their image, and creating slogans that attacked their image, was really effective.
But there’s a lot to think about. Firstly, tear gas is not supposed to be used in South Korea. However, the reason a company manufacturing the chemical could continue to operate was through its export sales. For example in 2010, the SK government exported tear gas to be used against protesters in the Arab Spring. The SK government made a considerable amount of money selling tear gas to be used against protesters fighting for their democracy.
Domestically, the SK government used tear gas against protesters during the 80s and early 90s, and through the efforts of the very protesters, the democracy we currently witness was forged. Tear gas was supposed to be left in the past; laws were created stating that SK will no longer deploy this chemical weapon on its people. Yes, weapons are still used; for example, the police use water cannons against protesters. But overall the general public in Korea remembers tear gas, and the memories are bad. It has a bad reputation.
So when we started this campaign and people found out we were exporting it to Bahrain, they were like: this cannot be. Even 이한열’s (Lee Han Yeol, killed by tear gas in 1987, which triggered the June Democracy Movement) mother spoke on this issue, that this is unacceptable. It’s a horrific chemical we no longer use, and it’s shameful that we’re facilitating its use elsewhere. There was public sympathy for the people of Bahrain.
I should add that in this case, there was a whistleblower who provided us with detailed shipping information; they provided us with exact import and export dates. And predictably, DAEKWANG Chemical Corporation/CNO Tech refuted their claims and stated they were a fraud from a competing, exporting manufacturer.
However, without this whistleblower, we would’ve had to contest the government for this information, which would’ve taken forever. As in, if we’re strategizing and protesting after the weapons have been exported, how effective can our campaign be? But because we knew when it was supposed go out, and within this short amount of time (we first received an email from a Bahraini activist during the fall of 2013, and were able to halt the export within the following winter, so it all happened in less than 6 months), we were able to create a compelling campaign. All of these components led to the success of this particular action.
Eunsong: Even within all of the various components, what do you think was the argument that lead to the halting of the exports?
Jungmin: There were a lot of international critiques that the government could not answer. Using the hashtag #DAPA (the government agency that brokers weapons imports/exports), the Bahraini people tweeted about the use of tear gas. So whenever DAPA was searched, you would see “tear gas” or facts about how many people it has killed. Bahraini activists would post detailed videos on how tear gas was being utilized, and we would subtitle their videos into Korean and circulate them. There was no good answer as to why this was being deployed that became clear.
Eunsong: Honestly, this is the best thing I’ve heard in so long. It is so incredible and exciting and as someone who lives in the US, I feel like I’m becoming somewhat jaded and I don’t want to be like this. What you and your fellow organizers did, it’s really something. Thank you.
Jungmin: Yes we were really excited. We started this campaign with the aim of halting the exports to Turkey, and ultimately, we want to change the law. We want to change the law so that the SK government cannot export weapons. We haven’t gotten there yet.
Eunsong: Yes, regarding “not yet” there was considerable mobilization against THAAD and also the Jeju naval base. Could you discuss your thoughts on both matters, as some may argue they are fixed, lost causes?
Jungmin: THAAD is a weapon of war. We organized against its deployment because it is an instrument of war and we’re committed to a world without war. We’re in a moment where THAAD has been fully deployed, and the SK and US governments used the threat of North Korea to usher this “technology” in. There’s an unfortunate, unscifientic myth in Korea that THAAD will protect us from NK. As surveillance mechanisms, THAAD and the Jeju naval base have difficult cultural myths to oppose. Some might say that these are lost causes, as we were unsuccessful in stopping their construction, and they were ultimately built and deployed. But we don’t believe this is over. We will be monitoring the environmental and social impacts of the base and the surveillance device. It’s not over; it hasn’t ended.
Eunsong: Yes, thank you so much for this. In 2015 SK was the largest weapons importer in the world. The year before, it was the United States. Between the two of them, it’s a top 5 back-and-forth. The US is pretty consistently the largest weapons exporter, so there is a kind of cannibalism regardless of how the numbers move. Can you discuss the weapons industry in Korea, and the protest actions you have taken against it?
A protest at the Le Méridien Seoul hotel, where arms dealers gathered for their welcome reception dinner, 2017
Jungmin: Oh wow, yes, number one. Such unpleasant news. SK acquires most of its weapons from the US, so that would make sense. And of the purchases, they are Lockheed Martin’s. Whenever there is a weapons expo (ADEX), Lockheed Martin’s booth is the largest. That’s where they show off their weapons, sell them, and a representative from the US is there to broker the deal. Lockheed Martin is also very well known in Korea because of THAAD (and the fighter jets), and they have an office base in Seoul. Because of THAAD and their imports, we’ve concentrated some of our efforts on them. Without War will set up a protest banner around their booth at the ADEX, and their hotel. In protesting THAAD at Seongju, we partnered with multiple peace organizations.
Eunsong: Have they responded to your protests? I ask because the protests engaged at the ADEX are incredibly performative and theatrical. There are scream masks, you’re in traditional funeral attire, there are death-dealing businessmen (which, maybe is less theater), and the depiction of gendered violence. They seem to differ each year in approach and tactic. Could you say a little about how the protests are planned, and what public engagement during protests means to you?
Jungmin: The ADEX is a 3 part, week long event. It’s where arms dealers and buyers meet, where they conduct business meetings (where contracts between weapons manufacturers and weapons exporters are brokered), and there’s a part of the event that’s open to general audiences on the weekend. For the most part, “public days” are not part of weapons expos in other countries; they are not open to the public and are for strictly business dealings. The existence of the “public days” (which draws a tremendous crowd) shows how the military industrial complex, the arms trade, national defense, and national security are linked to culture and education in Korea, and how their interconnections are constructed.
Last year, the ADEX’s “public day” coincided with a student holiday, and students were invited to the forum. So on the “public days” we, too, try to coordinate with educational centers and youth organizers.
Leading up to the annual ADEX, we have a planning meeting to discuss how to protest the three parts outlined above: the meeting ground for arms dealers and buyers, the business meetings, and the public days. Because the objectives of each function differ, our tactics also must differ.
We assign teams for each group, and each team brainstorms toward specific goals for an action. We strategize around the requirements said action would need, and begin practicing and training. We come up with the action’s principle. If our protest actions are performative or theatrical it’s because we want to drag the press out of complacency and approach bystanders without being rejected.
In terms of Lockheed Martin responding to our protests, sometimes they ask us why we’re here. Or they tell us that they haven’t done anything wrong, that we need to speak to our government.
Eunsong: Has a whistleblower appeared from Lockheed Martin?
Jungmin: No, unfortunately we haven’t met one yet…
Eunsong: As someone who used to live in San Diego, which was home to a large Lockheed Martin base, this gives me a lot to think about.
When I was first introduced to your work it was because of a broadcast that my brother made about your protest efforts against the construction of the Jeju naval base. In the clip, you are at the protest and describe the need to resist militarization. In the clip, we see how you submit yourself to the local courthouse to serve a sentence for “blocking public roads” in Jeju (you protested and then submitted yourself to a different protesting sentence!!!). Can you discuss the terms of your sentencing, and the stakes that activists in Korea are currently facing in regard to protest and opposition?
Jungmin: I was charged on six counts, and the biggest charge, the one that came with a fine or a sentence was the “blocking of public roads.” This was an old law that prosecutors decided to use against protesters during the 2008 protests against US beef imports. These protests were huge, and the “blocking of public roads” became the charge levied against protesters. And this charge came with an incredible fine, in the thousands and tens of thousands (of US dollars). It was supposed to deter public demonstrations.
Before, we would collectively pay protest fines. But with the fines proliferating it became difficult, which is what they wanted.
So my initial fine for protesting the Jeju naval base was 2 million krw (approximately $1880). I created a human chain around the trucks entering to build the naval base. I blocked the road with my friends. I was arrested for this, on March 7th, 2012.
It was around this time that the SK government blasted (literally) Guroembi rock, which was a geological and cultural symbol of the “No Naval Base Campaign” in Jeju.
Eunsong: To clarify, you were arrested as the naval base in Jeju was being built.
Jungmin: Yes, while it was being built, in 2012.
When we received the sentencing we wanted to fight back. The fact that it’s an either/or, either a fine or a jail sentence, makes protesting all that much harder, and we wanted to push back on this. So we decided to take the jail sentence, because doing so: 1. Damages the image of the Korean government, which prides itself in being a just 21st century liberal democracy, and 2. Demands for a broader conversation to be had on this issue, which will further pressure the government.
I was one of three who received the same protesting sentence, and the three of us decided that, aside from not having the money to pay this preposterous fine, we would refuse. We would take the sentence and go from there.
Eunsong: People in the US might understand this as part of the bail system, but it seems like what you’re saying is that the Korean government is handing out protesting sentences that operate as an either/or, making protesting a class issue that affects the poor and disenfranchised. Economically vulnerable people end up incarcerated for things that middle and upper class people can pay for. Can you break down the either/or a little bit?
Jungmin: The final sum for my Jeju protest sentence was approximately 5 million krw (approximately $4700), and I was supposed to serve a 95 day sentence. So the fine equates 50,000 krw (approximately $50) to one day of incarceration. But during my sentence, a fund was started to free me, so I ultimately spent 10 days in jail.
Eunsong: I am glad you were pulled out! How do you think your actions have affected the protest sentencing system, which seems to be an ongoing problem. Even as some say protesting doesn’t work, governments fear them. Hence the laws, or the scavenging of laws to use against protesters.
Jungmin: My actions alone, our actions alone, to refuse the fine haven’t affected the Korean government. But a lot of protesters and organizers have implicitly or explicitly agreed with our methods and have refused to pay the fine, taking a sentence instead.
I’ve been arrested and taken to court three times. The most recent time that I was arrested, I received a fine for 500,000 krw (approximately $470), on the same “blocking public roads” grounds. The charges against me were about the same as my Jeju sentencing, so I want to believe that because the fines themselves have dramatically decreased (for the same offenses), that this is an indicator that something is happening. Slowly, we’ll begin to see the effects in all the facets, I think.
Eunsong: The last question I have is, how can artists and writers connected to the US support you, and organizations like Without War?
Jungmin: There’s a lot that we could do. For starters, joint collaborative efforts. When we’re protesting Lockheed Martin in Korea, perhaps organizers in San Diego could host a protest or a march. Or we could use the same hashtag to discuss an issue.
In our present moment, North Korea is part of the Pyeongchang Olympics. But up until a few months ago, this wasn’t certain. So women’s groups in Korea marched on Pyeongchang.
And in Vancouver, Canada, a women’s group held a forum for Inter-Korean peace (reunification or reunion efforts). If these events were coordinated instead of independent, if they happened collaboratively, well…It’s best to organize together and transnationally. Organize with us.
Eunsong: You’re illustrating how even when North American groups (even when led by Korean, or Asian Americans or Canadians) come together to organize around Korea-related issues, we are doing it independently and within nation-state borders based out of the US or Canada, and doing so without thinking about what it might mean to communicate and organize collectively, transnationally?
Jungmin: Yes. And honestly, the idea of reunification is something that an older generation might hold onto. I’m working toward a world without war; I’m not centering reunification in my activism. This tends to be the attitude of a younger generation. I can imagine that Korean immigrants and Koreans abroad might hold onto a nostalgia for reunification, or center it in their activism in a way that a lot of younger activists here do not.
Eunsong: It’s true. Before immigrating I remember learning songs about reunification in school. But even the word–reunification–isn’t one that I hear very much anymore when I visit Seoul, Busan, Jinju, Jeju.
Your point about the position younger activists in Korea have taken makes a lot of sense to me. I guess it’s hard to let go of reunification, because the border is the afterworld of colonization.
Jungmin: It’s true.
Eunsong: Thank you so much Jungmin. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me and for telling me about your activism, organizing efforts and for taking us through what transnational activism looks like and could look like.
My interview with Choi was conducted on December 29th of 2017 in Seoul and again on January 21st of 2018 via the interwebs. It was transcribed, translated, and edited for clarity by me. My brother, the journalist and photographer Joseph Kim, arranged the interview, provided useful links for me to share, and added contextual commentary and photography. This interview would not exist without his labor and care.
Jungmin Choi is a campaigner and nonviolence trainer at World Without War, a South Korean organisation based in Seoul that supports conscientious objectors and takes action against the arms trade. She also works at the women’s counseling center, My Sister’s Place, an organization that assists Korean and migrant women who live and work near US military bases in South Korea.