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Nonviolence in South Korea

It has not been long since the concept of "nonviolent way of struggle" started to be used in the Korean social movement society.

Still, many people in social movements have a negative feeling about this concept. They regard "nonviolence" as a weak, passive and non-resistant way of struggle, and those perceptions seem to have come from the somewhat unique history that many Koreans have experienced.

In South Korea there had been over 30 years of authoritarian regime by the military after the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War. During that time people came to have intense aspirations towards liberty and democracy and many of them started to resist against the Korean government.

The Korean government responded to the people in a way of terror, mobilizing their armed forces. Under those circumstances, it was considered natural for people to resist the government in violent ways. They armed themselves and called their violence "resistant violence".

Nowadays, the state still frequently uses violence against people, especially the violation of people's human rights by police at demonstrations. Many activists think that there's no other way except "violent struggle", and that "nonviolent struggle" is not an effective tactic.

Nevertheless, "nonviolent struggle" is being accepted among some working groups in Korea, as "peace" and "nonviolence" is. "Nonviolent way of struggling" has had an influence on the people who don't agree with violent resistance.

There has been a kind of nonviolent way of resisting since 1980s, such as the students' objection to being in the forefront where they should aim at the north, the soldiers and combat polices proclamation that reveals the whole violence they have experienced in the period of military service and the civil objection to questioning by patrolman.

But the concept of "nonviolence" in those contexts was rather close to just a means of resisting.

In Korean society, conscientious objectors to mandatory military service are said to be the first sincere pacifists who take nonviolence as a philosophy of life. Conscientious objectors have advocated the right to refuse to unreasonable orders from the state, where nationalism and militarism is prevalent, and they have appealed to the people's good nature, making them contemplate the military, arms and the war fundamentally. People were deeply moved when they saw conscientious objectors willing go into prison for 18 months rather than take arms. They have come to know the significance of conscientious objectors performance as they watch continual wars caused by U.S. and Israel.

The working group for conscientious objection in Korea is now focusing on giving necessary assistance, such as legal and psychological counseling, to those who prepare to object. It also focuses on having people become aware of the meaning of conscientious objection through variety of activities such as press conferences, forums, campaigns and direct actions. The number of conscientious objectors in Korea is still small and the punishment COs are given is excessive, therefore it is very important to support them constantly, so they will not feel isolated.

Influenced by the movement of conscientious objection, there are many alternative groups now taking nonviolent pacifism as a principal philosophy of their struggle. These groups play an important part in the struggle against US base extension in Pyeongtaek. They are using their creative imagination to develop diverse tactics and nonviolent direct action, making a striking contrast to the previous way of struggle.

These "new" working groups are currently carrying out the "making peaceful village" project. They are trying to change the old house, where residents have left after the negotiation with Korean government, into a library, cafe and guesthouse full of works of art, with help from many artists. This year, there have been several crack downs by the military and police. But many people have performed nonviolent direct actions to protect the village, such as making a barricade with no arms, having sits-in on the excavator, and those tactics worked.

Even though mainstream media was not interested in those nonviolent struggles, many people know what happened in the Pyeoungtaek area and give support to the struggle against the US base extension.

Until now, nonviolence was not a principal philosophy in the Korean movement society. When Kang Chul-min, who was in active military service, declared his conscientious objection in 2003, there was a conflict of opinions whether the sit-down demonstration should go on or not. And there was also a problem when many university students declared preconscientious objection following their group's command. Those problems resulted because groups thought of conscientious objection as just a matter of tactics or even an event, not a direct action in one person's own life. Now there are more and more people who are taking up the nonviolent way in the anti-US base enlargement struggle.

Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection