Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

more reflections... [post-reportback styles]

KEEP was an amazing experience for me and I'm grateful that I had the ability to go with the support of my community - friends, allies, family.

It felt like my circle was coming back together on itself and my ends were meeting and connections were being made. Synapses firing and all that.

Last summer I had gone to the first ever US Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta. Remember? If another world is possible, another US is necessary. While I was there I had the opportunity to meet Go Yookyung from the Eradicators (aka National Campaign for Eradication of Crime by U.S. Troops in Korea) along with other anti-US base activists from the Philippines (Bayan), Okinawa (Okinawa Peace Fighters), Guam (Famoksaiyan), and Hawai'i (DMZ Hawai'i). It was one of those a-ha moments for me. The presence of all these amazing activists from around the Pacific Rim made one thing very clear to me. It's no use fighting the occupying forces in isolation. Your success at pushing US troops out just means that someone else is seeing an increase in troop numbers and if they push some out you know you'll soon be seeing those troops in turn. And so on and so forth...

I have to also shout out Susie Woo who taught a course called "US Imperialism in the Asia Pacific" for greatly expanding my thinking about the forms imperialism takes in these days of economic, cultural and military imperialism. I feel lucky to have had people help me gather these building blocks, who have helped me learn about the impact of US forces in the Pacific Rim.

This summer on KEEP was yet another opportunity to bring these things together. I got to connect with Go Yookyung again and learn more about how the Eradicators' struggle in Korea has shaped up over the past 17 years. We had the chance to hear a bit more about the long and sustained struggle they've committed their lives to. They've been fighting and fighting HARD to change public perception about the bases and US military occupation particularly around sexual violence, environmental damage and national sovereignty.

We also trekked out to Uijongbu to visit Duraebang (My Sister's Place). They're working with the camptown women and it was clear to me the continuing legacies of war and colonization in a place like Uijongbu. We also went to one of the weekly Comfort Women rallies and it was difficult being there knowing that they've fought so hard and so long for recognition and justice. Knowing that their struggle and what is happening in camptowns around bases are related in a very real way also felt really difficult. Thinking about how the occupation hasn't ended and that neoliberalism is presenting the same beast in different clothing...

The other thing I have been thinking a lot about is symbolized by the changing faces of the camptown women in Korea. We learned that many of the women in the camptowns are now coming from the Philippines on "Entertainer" visas and it was hard to internalize the fact that Korea is in a place where there are forces acting on it (through institutional, personal, environmental and economic violence) but it's also now in a position to replicate some of the same oppressive behaviors on these women coming in from the Philippines. Then there's the migrant workers, the mail-order brides, the biracial war orphans, etc. This is not about airing dirty laundry. This is about acknowledging the real layers of oppression, privilege, power and control in place.

It's been really interesting to push myself around thinking about Korea and Korean identity as deeply rooted in experiencing colonization and building national resistance histories yet also being seated in a position of relative privilege on a global scale. It's also been really challenging thinking about how our, the participants of KEEP, position in North America puts us in a similar position. As East Asians within the label of of Asian Pacific Islander and as East Asians within the larger racial justice movement we are not facing the deportation like our Kimay comrades nor are we the usual targets of violent profiling.

And personally I've also been thinking a lot about the privilege that I have as a Yale graduate, as a US citizen and as an English speaker within a lot of these contexts. These are conversations that I've been having with myself and with others in my community but going to Korea has helped me to further contextualize my position in a larger struggle for social justice in the world.

Locally, in Seattle, I've also been thinking a lot about the opportunities we have to connect with many different communities and combine our work. We've been collaborating with NAPAWF Seattle (National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum) and with Pinay sa Seattle (formerly of Gabriela Network) with further plans to work together around reproductive justice issues and around militarism, militarized prostitution and trafficking.

KEEP was, for me, an opportunity to learn and grow in my analysis and in my commitment to a global movement. It has helped me understand some of my reluctance to work solely on Korea related issues and helped me identify the way I want to plug in to that movement. It was also an amazing way to make contact with folks that I hope to deepen in the coming years. In my relative youth, I feel excited about the future and deeply respectful of the work that's come before me.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Excavating history, starting at Nogunri 노근리

One sleepless night in Seoul, I wrote a note to myself about what history means to diasporic Koreans in the US, residing in Cold War communities, one generation removed from the pivotal events that changed the course of history on the peninsula forever. I was thinking about this conundrum, of being in Korea where the state media is being reshuffled under Pres. Lee Myung Bak, of life post-KEEP, when the days are no longer packed with site visits with people with fire in their eyes.

It means, first and foremost, that you get an official history that only later, you realize, is the equivalent of reconstituted meat parts vacuum-sealed in tins and stamped for approval by the US State Department.

When you 'return' to Korea, it means constantly being on a scavenger hunt for meaning, and at first, everything satisfies, sometimes the packaged homeland tours, sometimes just the food speared on a stick under the shelter of a colorful umbrella, the vendor speaking to you like you’re her child. It means you visit ‘memorials’ meant to shut you up. It means something clean, like the preserved palaces of Kyungbokgung, it means everyone and everything would like to start over; can we please start over?

And yet, if you refuse the shiny tins of official state history, the amnesiac routes of tourist packages, then where do you begin?

It means you learn history from dogged AP reporters, not your parents or your teachers. It means fifty years later the typhoon rain is the researcher that makes the breakthrough, the construction crane is your accidental instructor, the documentary film is the gateway to questioning everything you've ever learned. And so when you go to Korea, it means you visit graves that don’t have names, it means visiting towns you are never supposed to visit, it means collectively grieving ‘bad' women that you should abolish from your memory...

Like much of the world outside the directly affected families, I learned about the Nogun-ri civilian massacre committed by the US military in 195o through AP reporters. I remember opening the New York Times in my college dining hall in 1999, a day just like any other day, and reading the front page report. The news exploded in my head- that before and during the war, the US army had approved, observed, and directly participated in the killing of Korean civilians without due process or trial, in a period AFTER the US had signed the Geneva conventions (which are meant to protect against the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians during wartime )- and not only this, that the US government had classified the relevant documents and that the South Korean government had suppressed it for almost 50 years. Since 1999, the report, the South Korea Truth Commission has built up a docket of at least 200 such cases.

This summer, I had the chance to visit three such sites. I am starting with Nogun-ri because that is where it all started- when those who knew what had happened under the administration of Pres. Syngman Rhee, during US military rule (1945-48) and the Korean War were finally legitimated, when the investigations by the newly formed national Truth Commission could finally begin.

First, in pictures, the huge sign announcing that this is where you are:

I found the huge sign somewhat ironic considering that, for much of the previous fifty years, it had been kept secret by the South Korean government. The politics of naming is also evident - who knows what an 'incident' is, or a '사건', unless you already know what happened at Nogun-ri? Nothing to indicate that this is where planes bombed down upon unarmed refugees and US ground troops fired into both ends of the tunnels.

Consider that the South Korean government had tried covering up the holes from the machine gun strafing (which didn't work too well, as you can see here from the dark patches below):

But in the later acceptance of the fact that the whole world now knew about Nogun-ri, the bullet holes from the airplane firing are now made even more visible by white paint circles (although there are more bullet holes than just the ones circled). Here, on one side of the tunnels:

And just to give a sense of scale:

You have to walk through the tunnel to find the small memorial where you can commemorate those who have been killed. Walking through the tunnel is not easy; you can just read the information panel and skip back to the car and drive off into the sunset. But walking through the enormity of the tunnel alone, it struck me; what it would feel like to hold on those memories for decades, to survive and survive and survive that experience without anyone listening, to be persecuted for even remembering -- how long did that tunnel feel?

There is a strange cartoonish painting at the site that tries to recapture what happened, and this is one part of it :

This is what Pres. Clinton said after the report came out:
"I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri" (2001). This is like the classic New York Times byline on every article about Korea ("Korea was divided in 1945"). By who? A language completely lacking in any accountability.

In any case, I think there is a different kind of power in the histories that get buried for so many years. Sometimes I feel despair when I know that survivors are passing away without getting any justice, that Pres. Lee Myung Bak tried to bury the National Truth Commission by next year, that his mantra, 'Let the past be the past,' sounds appealing to many.

But things can grow in the dark, the direct memory of experience can translate into so many other forms for the following generation, and there are so many people who are inspired to take part in movement work because of news that explodes much later into the light of day, like the 1980 Kwangju massacre, the 1948 Chejudo massacre, and for me, the 1950 Nogunri civilian massacre. This is not a history of sound bites, of boring reading assignments, of things under glass cases in museums. This is a history, literally, of bones that talk.
More on this to come.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Short-form Reflections

Now that KEEP is officially over, though unofficially we're still going to be visiting some organizations again, I'm going to take a moment to reflect.

The first thing that I was struck by in meeting all of these progressive, anti-imperial, and anti-US organizations was the intensity of their movement. These are people who will patiently and diligently hold a rally once a week outside of the US base for 17 years knowing that change does not come quickly. The Eradicators started their rallies with little support from the general Korean public while facing a society that supported the American troops in Korea. At this point, they've built awareness, fought battles and created connections to anti-US occupation movements in many parts of the Pacific Rim including Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii.

The other thing that struck me is how easy it was for me to miss all of this 투쟁, all of this struggle, on my other visits to my mother's land. Contrasting a tourists' visit to Korea, or even a typical Korean American's visit, to the collective experience that I've just had is more than just night and day. It's startling and yet somehow to be expected. During the weeks that I've been here I've seen more protests, sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies that I would have in months in the US. But the control of media, the insidious neoliberal goverment policies and the general apathy that I've also seen here makes clear to me how difficult it is for movements to gain ground and grow.

The final thing I'll mention before grabbing dinner: Lee Myung Bak tried to institute an "English Only" policy in the public school system. How twisted is it that 63 years after Japanese occupation ends the head of this "democratic" nation replicates that model with it's new colonial master? It makes me more than a little sick just thinking about it because it's harder to fight something like that than it is to fight a very clearcut imperial presence.

The real final thought that I'll expand more on later: Nationalism and it's role in Korean movement culture.

Thanks for tuning in folks. I'll have better posts with more pictures as the days go on. I thought it would be important to get some thoughts out first though. Also, most of this will be coming from memory since I lost my notebook with all my notes in it. Bear with me if it seems like I'm not sure of some of the details.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


wow. i don't know if there are words that can express this experience...
i have so much on my mind sometimes it hard to breathe. the tears and laugher and the sheer intensity of everything is just.....
... i am not going to go into detail right now but its "frikkin intense man" like my comradista 유니콘 (unicorn) would say. haha. anywho for now i just want to clarify that the post below is a statement of solidarity that we delivered to 민가협 (Mingahyup) today... they're an organization of women who fight for rights of political prisoners. mostly mothers and wives of political prisoners... yet another intense experience....
호리쉬트! ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

thats all for now folks. stay tuned.....

In solidarity with families of long-time political prisoners.

We the Korean Exposure and Education Program, KEEP, stand with you today in solidarity for our shared struggle against the National Security Law and criminalization of political dissenters and democracy activists.

We join the call for the basic human right to organize, for freedom of thought, and freedom of assembly. We condemn the illegal denial of due process for arrested activists and the brutal torture of activists fighting for social change. We see this issue as not only affecting the wrongly convicted and their families, but also the larger family of Koreans here and overseas, and the larger human family to which we all belong.

Your struggle inspires us in our struggle in the U.S. against the Patriot Act, torture, and the inhumane and immoral treatment of so-called terrorists who are invented. Further, in Canada, Security Certificates have been used targeting Muslim men who are seen as threats to national security. They are being held without charge or bail and have been placed in solitary confinement indefinitely.

We ask how democracy can be a democracy under these circumstances, when it releases white collar corrupted criminals but not those fighting for the truth?

We call for the humanity of all people. To rectify the decades of their lost youth, the tears of sleepless children, the fear theat infects their partners, and paralyzes all of us to work side-by-side for a greater society.

We share hope and extend our hearts toward you, the families, and to you, the wrongly convicted, that you remain strong. In solidarity, we will struggle, and in solidarity, we will find justice.

We are with you!


Friday, August 1, 2008

To Jirisan! 지리산으로 간다!

DAY 1, August 3: KEEP 2008 starts by heading from Seoul to Jirisan, or Jiri Mountain, historic site of partisan guerilla fighting against the US military government in Korea (1945-48) and the beginning days of the Republic of Korea through the Korean War (1950-53). It is a mountain full of ghosts, full of history, lost lives, countrypeople who supported the resisters and were killed in turn. And when people like Korean movement activists climb the mountain, it is not just for the views, the fresh air, the water flowing down the slopes. They go there to remember.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"corean monsoon rain"

so fresh and cools the soul
washing clean the leaves of the trees blossoming from the mountain side as people implore...
"when will it end? it has been raining for days to weeks non stop"
but there is something so pure and beautiful... as mother nature cleanses herself with her teardrops
so soothing the sounds of the dripplets dropping and the droplets dripping
on the trees and rooftops as they coexist on a mountain side
i admire the beauty as i make my way up my street which is at a 45 degree angle.. out of breath i sigh
holding groceries from the local corner market store in my hands, sweat dripping from my nose
the rain dripping from my clothes
streams flowing from the green hills past my door
making rivers out of the grooves in the asphalt floor
i make my way inside to enjoy an icecream bar i bought because of my loyalty to my favourite treats reminicent from my early childhood
mmmm so good...
but soon enough i find myself going outside again,
just to stand and admire the beauty of the corean monsoon rain...."
facebook group: the real sun

p.s. GREETINGS! ah my first blog. ever. ^.^ I wrote this piece on July 26 but hadn't figured out this blog thinger majiger yet. for a good week or so the rain came, non stop. literally. but now it's stopping slowly. taking tea breaks as i imagine the clouds to be doing. haha. but all jokes aside, Michelle and I (stand up TORONTOO!!) are here now in Corea and yesterday we met up with Wol-San (of Migrant Trade Workers Union aka MTU) and Sukjong (KEEP Coordinator extrodinaire) at a hunger strike that was going into its 50th day. A company by the name of 기륭전자 (Ki-Rung-Jun-Ja) laid off their female factory workers just before their two year mark working at the factory. because at two years, by law, they then become regular workers and are no longer irregular workers (which cost the company more money). So they were all laid off, with (from my undrstanding,) the intention to re-hire them back as irregular workers robbing them of regular worker status. They have now been on strike over this issue for 3 years. And two of these women started a hunger strike 50 days ago. They have still not eaten. Their lives are really now at risk. Yesterday they took up a coffin to lay on the rooftop where these women are spending their (hopefully not their last) days. our camp was allowed to meet and speak to the women. Despite their struggles, they looked well spirited. Their eyes glowed with hope and their energies and expressions communicated that they were at ease with what they were doing. As if they were comforted, protected, and honoured by their uncowardly and strong commitment to the struggle. Unfortunately this issue is not getting much attention due to the stuggles and demonstrations in Seoul over the U.S. beef import issue... there will be more updates to come. in the meantime, for articles in Corean check: and

peace love unity

Friday, July 25, 2008

율동 in the rain! E-land women workers' struggle

In the shadow of the World Cup Stadium, Seoul, irregular women workers of the Homever store have set up a tent where they sleep every night, and every Friday, they hold a cultural rally that calls attention to their unjust firing. They are right there, unavoidable, for all the shoppers that emerge out of the subway exit.

The issue of irregular workers in Korea and the timeline of these women workers' struggle with the multinational e-land are very well summed-up in this series of articles (Riot police and young mothers face to face in Seoul, Asian Human Rights Commission )

Source: UNI Commerce Global Union

Immediate ironies: 1. The Homever store, branding itself as 'Sweet home forever' while firing single moms and lower-income workers so that they can't get benefits under the law- so 'home' is essentially a brand, but only consumable by the middle and upper class...

2. The World Cup stadium where Homever is located, formerly the stage of crazy nationalist-soccer fever in 2002, now a mall full of part-time contracted workers who have no benefits -
As it poured, student groups and union groups came out and performed 율동 to movement songs like 얼굴 찌프리지 말아요, smiling. In some ways, the rain transformed the event because everyone performing was vulnerable to it, and yet, soaked, it seemed to make people's spirits lift higher. Imagine it: a car pointing its headlights at a tent, lighting up the faces of students and union leaders singing, dancing, acting... I had gone to arrange the meeting for KEEP, and found myself staying until the end,

The tent where the striking workers sleep, next to the store...

KEEP 2008 makes its big debut at the Friday cultural rally in a few weeks--

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Flashbacks to the past

This is Lee Myung Bak with a 'mad' cow (note the dark rings around the eye) riding a time machine - and they've skidded into the '80s. And even the cow, the mad cow, is saying, exasperated : 'Aigo (untranslateable- maybe- Oh dear)- look, we've gone too far into the past.'

What happened in Korea in the '80s? Starting with the long-hidden civilian massacre at Kwangju in May 1980 by state paratroopers and US approval, followed by years of repression, arrests, and a fearsome police state during the Chun Doo Hwan regime, the background of the cartoon shows it right: masses of people gathered together, and the riot cops running after them, but also, the feeling of being on the horizon of something new and unprecedented...

I think the sheer scale of the vigils and the violence of the state response is astonishing to see but not totally unprecedented; It IS reminiscent of the June '87 uprising; the student and worker demonstrations turned 'necktie' revolution, when anyone and their mother walked into the street to call for democratization and an end to military dictatorship-

The indelible image of tens of thousands of people gathered in Seoul to protest the US beef import and Lee Myung Bak's neoliberal yes-man persona is not something that can be blamed away, and yet the government has been targeting certain groups as masterminding the vigils.

So along with arresting or drafting arrest warrants for individuals of certain organizations and even those who WRITE about the arrest or the issue (link), JUST TONIGHT the police surrounded the building of KCTU- the major labor confederation of trade unions- with arrest warrants for its 3 top officials. The standoff is still ongoing... Link

And the parallels to the '80s keep on growing...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

July 1st, NYC's KEEP Fundraiser: Remembered Hunger

Remembered Hunger: Readings & Performances by Lee Herrick, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, and Kim Sunee

Join KEEP in celebrating its 14th year for a night of readings and performances from guest readers, learn about previous KEEP trips, and meet with past and future KEEP participants!

WHEN: Tuesday, July 1, 2008, 7-9 PM
WHERE: The Asian American Writer's Workshop
16 West 32nd Street, Suite 10A, New York, NY 10001
Suggested donation: $10

CONTACT: Betsy,, 425-770-1106,

A b o u t t h e A u t h o r s :

Lee Herrick is the author of the poetry collection This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007). He was born south of Seoul, Korea and adopted at ten months. His poems have been published in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Berkeley Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Bloomsbury Review, Many Mountains Moving and MiPOesias as well as anthologized in Seeds from a Silent Tree: An Anthology of Korean Adoptees, Hurricane Blues: Poems About Katrina and Rita and Highway 99: A Literary Journey through California's Great Central Valley. He is the founding editor of In the Grove literary journal and teaches at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is a poet, librettist, teacher, and critic. She was born in Won Su Ji, South Korea. Her debut poetry collection, Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press 2007), received the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. Her poems have been published in 5 AM, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Cream City Review, MiPOesias, Poetry NZ and the Tulane Review as well as anthologized in Echoes Upon Echoes (Asian American Writers Workshop 2003) and Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton 2008). Dobbs holds a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California and teaches English at St. Olaf College.

Kim Sunée was born in South Korea, adopted, and raised in New Orleans. She lived in Europe for more than ten years where she owned an all-poetry bookshop in Paris. She is the author of Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home (January 2008, Grand Central). Her book, a memoir with recipes, was selected for the Spring 2008 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program and is a January 2008 Booksense Pick. She is the founding food editor of Cottage Living and worked previously as a food editor for Southern Living.

KEEP'er Jennifer Kwon Dobbs herself is reading this night!
Please forward this on to your New York-dwelling peeps, and you can also click on the flier and save it to your computer too to forward.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

People's Committees in southern Korea 1945-47

Another little-mentioned aspect of Korea before and after division are the people's committees that quickly formed all throughout Korea upon the end of World War II and Japan's defeat, from August 15, 1945.

In understanding the general lack of awareness about people's committees in this time, we can point to the fact that these insitutions of self-rule were promptly and thoroughly suppressed by the United States military government as soon as they came to occupy the southern part of the peninsula in September.

What were people's committees? Briefly, they were local self-governing bodies which organized all aspects of political, economic, and social decision-making necessary to restore peoples' lives and basic services as the Japanese colonial government left. They kept the order and organized food harvesting and distribution, set up legal bodies, etc. They were of various political ideologies, and only excluded those people who had collaborated most closely with the Japanese.

But when the Japanese colonial administration left, they convinced US military commanders that the emergence of these political bodies was led by Communists. So the US military government also sought to eradicate these independent people's committees. Naturally the most conservative elements of Korean society, such as the landlords who had profited under Japanese colonialism, were also against the redistribution and justice-oriented designs of the people's committees.

The picture below, of this time period, shows the extent and geographic spread of these people's committees in the South, and challenges the idea that people in Korea were not ready to govern themselves.

What else do people know about people's committees?
Another link (from US Library of Congress sources, no less) on people's committees.