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Militarism and Environmental Justice

By Shin Soo Yeon, Green Korea United

South Korea is presently conducting large-scale joint military drills, the annual Operation Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, with the United States (between 7 March - 30 April 2016). The United States mobilised nuclear aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, strategic bombers, and other military assets in the operation. This years' military drills involved US and ROK (Republic of Korea) troops have been enormous, involving 17,000 US and 300,000 Korean troops.

They are strategically aggressive in nature, seeking to formulate a pre-emptive attack on North Korea, striking at its leadership while simulating plans for a direct capture of its capital city, Pyongyang.

The media views the scale of these exercises as signalling a strong warning from the United States in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and long distance rocket launch. However, these aggressive military exercises cannot be viewed as a route to a new stage of North-South relations. Every time a massive military exercise is conducted, it sets in train a vicious cycle that only leads to heightened risk of North-South military conflict and crisis. Peace activists shout slogans like ‘Stop banging the drumbeats of war. Stop war exercises’ in front of the United States Embassy in Seoul, and are also engaged in one person protests and marches to put a halt to the war exercises.

The military base causes a wide range of environmental problems

Environmental problems caused by military activity need to be highlighted urgently Korea's citizens are threatened by environmental problems, manifested in different forms as a result of militarism. From noise pollution - caused by the constant take offs and landings of the warplanes, as well as shooting ranges; soil and groundwater pollution caused by oil spills; water pollution due to wastewater discharge; heavy metal pollution caused by live ammunition firing, as well as numerous other instances of environmental damage in residential areas including the Ohgyeok accident, have been extensive and widespread.

South Korea’s land mass is small, and most of the increase in land utilization for residential use happens to be nearby military installations. Last year there were numerous instances of stray bullets being fired through the windows and roofs of houses of residents in the Pocheon area. In areas where there’s a high concentration of US military bases, such as Pyeongtaek and Daegu, there have been high levels of soil contamination with oil and heavy metals. Around areas of returned US military bases, the development of sites for parks, schools and industrial facilities has often led to the discovery of further contamination. In 2014, the citizens of Chuncheon were so suspicious and distrustful of government efforts to ensure the clean up of contaminants in the vicinity of US military installations that they decided to form a radiation monitoring team themselves. At the time, when Camp Page (a former US military base, now used by the Republic of Korea as an aviation base) was being reused in Chuncheon, the level of oil contamination was deemed very serious, with the level of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon (TPH) pollution over 100 times the permissible level. In 2011 a retired US soldier claimed that he witnessed an accident involving a nuclear tipped warhead at Camp Page’s nuclear silo in south Chuncheon. This would suggest a nuclear discharge.

Military exemption

The main reason for citizens' concerns and distrust when it comes to environmental pollution can be attributed to the lack of access to information. Information in relation to environmental pollution at military installations has been regarded as a state secret and very difficult to obtain, even more so when it comes to United States Forces Korea (USFK) installations.

Last year there were two incidents. One concerned the Pyeongtaek USFK military base and the import and testing of anthrax samples. When it came to light that Anthrax (known to be used in the making of weapons of mass destruction) samples were imported, tested and used in training, a number of activists organized a mass network. Within a week, 8,500 people had called for the prosecution of those responsible. Furthermore, a petition demanding that various allegations be investigated was signed by 10,500 people and submitted to the Department of Defense. A subsequent request for an interview was denied. Not only did shipments find their way to Pyeongtaek USFK military base, but it has also been revealed that experiments on Anthrax and plague bacteria samples have been conducted at the Yongsan US military base in Seoul as well. However, the South Korea-US government’s position is that the samples have been safely disposed. Due to the associated high risks, such experiments are normally conducted by the US military in deserts. It defies belief that such experiments were allowed to be conducted in a highly densely populated city, and that no one has taken responsibility for such actions. Furthermore, the government stated that it will make findings of an investigation into internal pollution at Yongsan military base known in a private disposition. What is at stake is obtaining objective findings/data with regard to the environmental investigation, but due to the sensitive nature of negotiations around the return of military bases, the government says it is concerned that public disclosure of its findings would jeopardise the process. A lawsuit is currently being brought against the government demanding full disclosure of its findings.

Who pays for environmental clean up?

It is not only humans that bear the brunt of the costs of operating military bases. Gangjeong residents and peace activists have been engaged in a nine year struggle in opposition to the construction of the Jeju Naval base, along a pristine coastline that is home to endangered species and soft coral colonies comprising a ‘natural monument’. The navy received authorisation to proceed with the construction work on the condition that the soft coral colonies comprising the ‘natural monument’ would be protected from damage. However, the results of ongoing monitoring conducted by residents and environmental groups over the years have shown that soft coral habitats have suffered noticeable damage and deterioration. Under the pretext of national security, the US-ROK alliance today is presently carrying out joint military exercises. Tensions run very high on the peninsula, and the saber-rattling continues unabated, the government and mainstream media see promoting militarism and fuelling the arms race as the only solution. Access to information is denied to the public, and yet the tax payer gets to foot the bill to pay for environmental damage caused by militarism. Is this just or right? Will money indeed ever restore the environmental damage?

Bryan Farrell, in his research on the ‘environmental costs of militarism’ has come to the conclusion that the greatest single assault on the environment all around the globe comes from the Armed Forces of the United States. Military activity is laying out acres of depleted uranium and other toxic substances in ecosystems across the world. Also, environmental security policy of the national research institute states that “..although there is no concrete evidence based on concrete research, there is little doubt about the role that militarization plays in being an important factor that contributes to global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer…”1 (claim based on historical data). Indeed, when one looks at national and international data estimates of oil consumption by militaries, both during and outside of war time, there is no doubt that militarism is justifiably seen as a main contributor to climate change.

The claim made by governments to promote and work for peace on the one hand, while destroying ecosystems and continuing to prepare for endless war on the other, wasting valuable resources in the process of laying waste to the planet is a scandal. If we merely stand by as passive observers we are also complicit in postponing 'environmental justice ‘and ‘climate justice.’ The time has come for the peace and environmental movements to work together in solidarity if true ‘justice’ is to be realized.

Translated by Patrick Cunningham 

1 Bae Jae Jin, Military role in promoting environmental security policy, 2014