Coming up on August 15th is Korea’s National Liberation Day.
A day that marks Korean citizen’s freedom from Japan’s imperialist rule. In short, this is their Independence Day. So without a doubt this is a significant patriotic holiday for them. One that many Koreans choose to honor by speaking out about the human rights that matter to them. Which is why I think we have recently seen an increase of activity of demonstrators and protesters around Camp Humphreys. It might be pure coincidence with the current political climate, but it makes me think the timing is fitting. Perhaps our own Independence Day should be more than a day of fireworks and hot dogs?
As some of you know, I started playing Pokemon GO last year. This weekend was a double day Community event. The prize at stake were shiny Eevee evolutions. Demonstrators or no demonstrators, nothing was keeping me from acquiring a couple of new digital pets. Except maybe the brutal sun and humidity of South Korea. Walking around the Ville near Camp Humphreys, I sought reprieve and came to the pagoda located across from the front gate. It was the only place to rest from the sun’s reach without committing ourselves to another establishment’s wares. Sharing the same space was a smaller group of Koreans resting. They looked like they were part of the same demonstrators from Friday. We greeted each other and then after a few moments, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked the young man what the purpose of their demonstration was and what their signs meant.
He asked me why Americans were afraid of Koreans. I said are generally advised to avoid demonstrations. Our government cannot guarantee our safety if we go near them. Plus, demonstrations here in Korea are different than what we expect in America. Even though all Americans in Korea generally feel safe, someone yelling on the corner tends to make Americans feel anxious. Here, yelling is a sign of verbalizing passion. To keep the mood light I tried to jokingly say that Americans love their guns and since we were not allowed to have any here, maybe that’s why some people are afraid. I could tell my joke fell flat and perhaps considered this point more seriously than I intended. So instead I told him that I felt the best way to get their message across is to promote cultural exchanges. A couple of months ago there was a Friendship Festival in front of Camp Humphreys. He laughed and said he went to that event. However, it felt like a shopping event. I shared with him the American perspective. For many it was the first time they saw Korean culture through performances, food stalls, and crafts. Everyone was having fun in a relaxing way. There is an old parable that says the wind and sun competed for the attention of a man. The wind blew vigorously and made the man cold. When the sun had his turn, he gently warmed the man and gained his confidence.
I asked him why he wanted Korea to have a stronger ally, like the United States. He told me that the U.S. was one of the first world powers to elect via a democracy. That it was the one of the first to support human rights like minorities and women getting the right to vote and receiving protection under the law.
There comes a moment where you realize you take your rights, and way of life, for granted. That there are people who live a life yearning for the freedoms that you have.
We continued our conversation. The young man said he was worried that American soldiers wouldn’t see their demonstration and understand that the Korean people truly support them. I jokingly told him that it wasn’t payday weekend, so soldiers were not expected to be active today. He nodded his head chuckling a bit, but afterwards I thought to myself, is payday weekends any better? There is such a flurry of activities that everything else outside of bills and acquiring everyday necessities is easily ignored. It is easy to say that Americans are heading to Seoul in droves to drink away their money, but that is not true. The real reason base activity tends to slow down on the weekends and holidays is because soldiers and their families leave the area to relax and decompress from their stressful lives. Some enjoy the comforts of their home and don’t bother leaving the base at all. Which means, there essentially is no “good” time to have a demonstration.
I wanted to take a moment and share with you this chance meeting because I believe it is important to speak and act on your passions. I understand it isn’t always easy to speak your mind and certainly at times it is uncomfortable. But if it is important to you, take the time to share it with other people. Face-to-face, in a safe public place, in a safe way. My hope is that you will always try to do it with as much civility as possible. And if you want to reach out to Americans overseas, reach out to your local Public Affairs Office to coordinate safe community events.
If you want to connect with the military community in Pyeongtaek your best bet is to contact the USAG Humphreys’ Public Affairs Office at DSN: 754-1095. Their local civilian phone number is: 0503-354-1095