By Paul Liem | Interviewed on August 20, 2017 | September 20, 2017
This is the third in a series of interviews with the five member U.S. Solidarity Peace Delegation, to South Korea, July 23 – July 28, 2017, of whom delegation coordinator, Juyeon Rhee, was denied entry to South Korea under a travel ban imposed by the Park Geun Hye administration, and remaining in force under the new administration of President Moon Jae In.
The delegates met with South Korean peace and labor activists, with Shim Jae Kwon, Chair of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, and with villagers of Seongju, Gimcheon and Soseongri who are waging a struggle against the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in their communities. The delegation was sponsored by the Taskforce to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific and the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation, and was hosted in South Korea by the National People’s Action to Stop the Deployment of THAAD in South Korea (NPA), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations.
Delegates Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, Reece Chenault of U.S. Labor Against the War, Will Griffin of Veterans for Peace, delegation coordinator Juyeon Rhee, Jill Stein of Green Party USA, have since spear headed an international petition campaign calling upon presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump to pull back from the brink of war in Korea, by halting the war games and negotiating a freeze on missile and nuclear weapons testing with North Korea.
Following the delegates’ return to the United States, Paul Liem, KPI Board Chairperson, interviewed the delegates about their experiences in Korea and their reflections on how to strengthen solidarity between peace activists there and in the United States. His interview with Will Griffin follows.
PL: Will, I understand that when you were a youngster, you spent part of your childhood in Korea.
When was that and were you old enough to remember what that was like and is that part of your character as Will Griffin today?
WG: Both my parents were in the Army so I’m an Army brat, raised in an army family. I was born in West Germany in ‘84. Then by 1987 I moved to South Korea and I lived there for just over four years. I lived, of course, just outside of an army base, Camp Humphreys, in Pyongtaek. So I was an American who had never been to America for the first eight years of my life. I don’t remember West Germany, but I do remember South Korea, and I think it had a really big impact on me.
I didn’t realize the impact until I moved to the states when I was eight years old. I encountered a lot of cultural issues I wasn’t accustomed to. For example I remember people making fun of me in the third grade because I didn’t know who Madonna was. But in South Korea being, being with other military brats I think the culture was a lot different – not as harsh. We all depended on each other. There was a stronger unity between families.
Of course, the downside of it is was that I was raised on the pro America, pro-military side, in Korea. I was a kid back then. I didn’t know what was going on, really, but I was taught certain values – that the U.S. military in South Korea was a good thing, that they were there to protect the South Korean people, that there was no other way that this should be; that there should be a huge U.S. military posture on the Korean Peninsula, that North Korea was just evil no matter what it did, it was just evil, and it had to be surrounded by the military. But after growing up and learning the history in the region, my views have definitely changed. But I still remember South Korea and, you know, I’m half Korean, so it will always be a part of me.
PL: How did your parents adjust to your transition? Do you talk about politics around the table at Thanksgiving? How does that go?
WG: My mother is Korean, and she even did five years in the U.S. Army. My father, a white guy from Georgia, he did 22 years in the army. Neither had ever been in a combat zone. They never went to war. My dad’s been to the DMZ, but not in actual in direct conflict. On the other hand, I did five and a half years, went to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I got out in 2010. I had been questioning the war personally. In the immediate four years after I got out of the military I went to college and studied U.S. foreign policy. That’s really where I began to change, beginning with questions and then finding answers, more so through anti-war organizations like Veterans for Peace. I got into serious arguments with my father. Through my four years of college, he generally thought the U.S. should be in Iraq. He thought the U.S. should be in Afghanistan. He thought terrorism was a huge threat. You know he’s living in South Georgia. He’s from South Georgia. He has that southern culture in him that’s super patriotic. He did 22 years in the military so you can never question what the military does, and everything the military does is correct and right and moral and just.
So we got into serious arguments and a … where we had to take a break from talking to each other.
Eventually I converted him. He’s an anti-war activist today and he’s a local organizer with Veterans for Peace.
We went to the National Convention together, a week ago in Chicago. Going to these conventions helps energize you. He went to his first Veterans for Peace Convention in 2015. And I think that’s what changed him because he looks up to Vietnam veterans. He was too young. He wanted to go to Vietnam. He joined maybe a year after the war ended. And so he looks up to Vietnam veterans, and Veterans for Peace has a lot of Vietnam veterans. At the Veterans for Peace Convention all these Vietnam veterans are anti-war, they’re all about peace and they’re exposing the corruption in the military and the Pentagon and the government. That had a huge influence on my father for sure. For my mother, we don’t talk about politics, that’s just how it is.
PL: You mentioned you had started having questions. Could you could share those with us and also how did you get your father to go that Vets for Peace Conference?
WG: So the military is supposed to be this really great jobs program, a way to get education, the typical thing you hear about joining the military. In my experience it wasn’t that. You got treated really badly. Your value was only as high as your rank, so the hierarchy in the system was horrible. You were dehumanized while being taught to dehumanize other people. I signed up for four and a half years but ended up having to do five and a half years because I was under the Stop-Loss Program which meant that at the end of my four and a half year contract I was already two months in Afghanistan; you can’t just separate from the military, you have to finish it out. Also when we were in Iraq I was supposed to do a 12 month deployment. We ended up doing a 15 month deployment because that’s when Bush announced the surge in Iraq. So we got extended. I admitted to myself that I didn’t know anything about U.S. foreign policy despite my whole life being U.S. foreign policy, being born overseas on a military base, going to different wars, living in military bases around the world, being half Korean and an American. I didn’t know anything and I realized and that’s one of the reasons I studied U.S. foreign policy went I went to college. Well there’s a longer story to it but I’ll go onto the next question you asked which was how did I convert my dad, my father.
Well … we got into a lot of arguments, to say the least. I pointed out a lot of different things to him and I may have said some horrible things. But, I would argue truthful things. I said things like, you know, I would question his parenting skills.
A lot of military parents are proud that their kids are in the military service. Even if I had died in Iraq in 2006, 2007, ultimately my father at that time would have been proud that I had died for my country. But what kind of a parent would want, you know, would even be proud of such a thing, that I died not for the country but really making defense contractors rich? I would use my situation to my advantage. I was the only child and it really got to the point where I said, either you start at least thinking about some of the things that I’m saying to you, or we cannot talk anymore.
Another thing is that my dad, my father, had never been to a combat zone and I’ve been to both Iraq and Afghanistan. And I had been a paratrooper and he was a regular soldier. In the military paratroopers, Rangers, Special Forces, they’re all looked up to as the ideal soldier. You want to be as good as them and they seem to have more authority with certain cases. So he looked up to me. That worked to my advantage, eventually I got him to go to a few Veterans for Peace events, and that changed him.
PL: That’s an amazing story all by itself. But getting back to the topic of your work as a board member of Veterans for Peace I know that you’ve been to South Korea several times. Can you tell us about those occasions and also explain why you thought it was important to go to Korea last July as part of the Solidarity Peace Delegation?
WG: So I lived in South Korea for four years in the 80s. One of the first places I visited after I got out of the military in 2010 was South Korea to see some family. In 2014 I joined Veterans for Peace. And since then I’ve been to South Korea on three separate delegations. What got me interested in Korea was that two months before I started my first foreign policy college class, Obama announced the pivot to Asia which some people are now calling the rebalance of Asia. And that’s essentially the U.S. military sending 60 percent of its forces to the Asia-Pacific region, mainly using North Korea as an excuse. So North Korea had been on the Pentagon’s radar for the past several years and that was also the time I was questioning, or at least admitting to myself, that I didn’t know much about foreign policy.
I chose to study U.S. foreign policy specifically in the Asia Pacific region. I learned some Chinese history, U.S. foreign policy in Korea, a little bit about Japan, and by the time I graduated in 2014 I found Veterans for Peace, and the very next year they were sending a delegation to Jeju Island. I went and learned so much about Korea and I said I gotta … and I noticed that I knew a little bit more about Asia Pacific issues than most people, even in Veterans for Peace organizations and peace organizations in the U.S. in general. So I decided that I was going to buckle down and learn even more.
It’s been so difficult to get Americans, and even the U.S. peace groups here to focus on issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The past 16 years we’ve been tied up in bombing the Middle East and destabilizing that area. So trying to get people to focus on other areas like Asia or even Africa is very difficult. But these delegations to Korea have definitely helped not only me to focus on Asia Pacific issues and Korean issues but also organizations like Veterans for Peace, Code Pink and other organizations in the U.S., as well.
PL: When you were in Korea, what were the key points that you and your fellow delegates trying to communicate to the people you met?
WG: I think being a former soldier had a big impact on the South Korean people and the organizers there. They have little interaction with the soldiers. And when they do it’s not with the type of veteran that I am. It’s not the anti-war veterans. It’s with the pro U.S. military, very young, very naive type of soldier that they interact with. So having veterans come there, especially who have been stationed there, and even myself who’s half Korean, and that we can come out and starting exposing some of the really horrible things that the military does was really appreciated.
There’s so many things that we never hear in the mainstream media or it’s very hard to learn about the impacts of militarism on South Korea and its people, the displacement of entire villages, how it actually ruins employment rates, and the economy, how it destroys the environment, how it infringes on their democratic processes, so on and so forth. But you know every time I go to Korea I learn something new. It’s not about me telling South Korean people what I do or anything about me, it’s about me going over there sitting down, shutting up and just listening to them.
PL: What did the villagers want you to share with your fellow veterans for peace, and just in general to the American peace movement, as their messenger?
WG: I think the main message is that South Korea wants to be South Korea. They don’t want the U.S. military to control their country. At the same time they still want to have good relations with America and the American people. And I think that’s super important. They definitely know the distinction between the American people and the American government or the American people in the military.
They want to keep connections with us. They just don’t want us to overrun their country and they want us to admit the horrible things that the military has done, such as destroying their environment, polluting their environment, acknowledging some of the crimes that have been committed, whether it was intentional or not by soldiers. And South Korean people want us to know they want the U.S. government and the American people to listen to them. They want to have one voice because they’ve been shut out and shut down so many times for so long.
I think that’s the main message that we need to convey; like I said sit down, shut up, listen to the South Korean people and figure out what’s best for all of us.
PL: As an activist for the Vets for Peace do you see any possibility of connecting with vets in Korea who as both the U.S. and South Korean soldiers have in common the experience of fighting in Vietnam. Is there any kind of a similar organization in Korea for vets as there is your organization here?
WG: Veterans For Peace actually has a South Korean chapter that is essentially independent from our whole organization. Just to remind people Veterans for Peace is an international organization. We do have chapters in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Japan, Okinawa, Vietnam, and of course South Korea. And every time I go, they find out and they always meet me somewhere at some event whenever I’m in South Korea. They usually buy me lunch or dinner and we can spend some time together and talk and catch up.
Also every time I go to any type of event whether it’s the peace march on Jeju Island or traveling the bases on mainland South Korea, within various organizations there’s always an ex-soldier or ex-police who is now trying to organize against some of the… against U.S. military but also you know in fighting for peace, usually in some type of peace organization. In South Korea almost every male is a former soldier because they have to be in the military for at least a year and a half to two years. They can definitely relate.
PL: You mentioned that in Vets for Peace there are a lot of veterans of the Vietnam War and obviously now from wars in the Middle East. Within Vets for Peace what is the understanding of the Korean War or discussion about it? The Korean War is sometimes called the “forgotten war” in the United States. Is the Korean War part of the culture of the Vets for Peace in terms of their understanding of U.S. history abroad?
WG: The idea of the Korean War being the forgotten war still remains in America and even in anti-war and peace organizations here. It’s very difficult to get people to focus on issues in the Asia Pacific. It’s not only a forgotten war, it’s a forgotten issue, despite us having such a huge military presence in the Asia Pacific; 83 bases in South Korea alone, tens of thousands of troops in South Korea alone. We have hundreds of thousands more in the entire region.
North Korea being in the mainstream media as of late this past one to three months has really helped people refocus and shift some of their attention. So there’s been an attention pivot to Asia where people are going outside of the Middle East and actually trying to learn about these issues.
Veterans for Peace just had a national convention in Chicago. And the very final panel which included retired Colonel Ann Wright, Phyllis Bennis, and myself covered three key regions of the world where militarism is a problem. I covered of course the Asia-Pacific region. The feedback that I got was very positive. A lot of people came up to me and wanted to know about the history there, how broad the U.S. military is there. I’m trying to provide some of the historical background and what we can learn from it and move forward and how we can fight back against it.
PL: U.S. and South Korea are getting ready to launch the next round of war games starting Monday, the Ulchi Freedom Guardian war games. The North Koreans have been blasting Trump, telling him he better watch out. And Trump has been threatening North Korea with fire and fury. All kinds of chilling threats are being made. We also have this defense system in South Korea, THAAD which the Chinese are angry about. What do you see as being the way out of this situation? How do we avert war in this kind of scenario?
WG: I think people just don’t know what’s going on. I think the majority of Americans don’t really even know about the annual war games that happen on the Korean Peninsula. And even if they do they don’t understand the impacts. So I think trying to educate them but also providing ways that they can actively participate in our political system to try to stop these things. Petitions, providing Congress phone numbers and e-mails, organizing events, protests, marches, rallies providing other organizations that they can join to learn more about these issues. And just being there ready to accept people whenever they come in whether it’s slowly or fast.
When we relate to the American people we have to relate to them in their own terms. So one of the examples I always use is to point out that we’re so U.S.-centric here that it’s hard for us to conceive of the vice versa situation. The U.S. has 83 bases in South Korea. What if North Korea had a single base in Mexico? What if they were doing surveillance off the coast of California? What if they did a nuclear bomb dropping drill off the coast of Maine, which is what the U.S. has been doing to North Korea? When you put it in those terms l think people can really understand, wow, that is a provocation – that is dangerous. We wouldn’t want that to be done to us. And how would the Pentagon react in such a scenario?
And then the second question you asked me, what was the second question?
PL: How do you think we can get out of this mess?
WG: Our governments need to speak with each other. When we speak about Korea issues we can’t speak about it with just Korea. It’s a regional issue. It involves China, Russia, Japan, the US, South Korea, North Korea. We need to take every one’s and every government’s side into consideration and when we look at what China and Russia and even North Korea have been offering – they want to sit down and talk. North Korea has already said to the international community that it doesn’t want to continue developing its nuclear program, but that it’s doing so as a survival method to protect itself from invasion or regime change. But the U.S. is constantly threatening them. So I think the main goal especially for U.S. citizens, is to get our government to stop being so aggressive in the region and to sit down and talk.
Part of that is addressing what North Korea’s been saying, what China’s been saying, Russia’s been saying, what people of Okinawa have been saying, what people of Jeju Island have been saying for so long – that we need to stop the aggression which is really a continuation of the Korean War, which is escalating the tensions in the region. Once we do that I think people will understand it’s not as bad as it looks.
PL: Do you see a role for Vets for Peace in terms of opening up dialogue with North Korea? Has Vets for Peace ever considered sending a delegation there. Aside from the fact that there’s a travel ban, putting that aside, is this a possible agenda item for vets?
WG: We veterans for peace and veterans in general recognize that we have a special voice here in the States and we try to use that to highlight voices that aren’t necessarily heard. Generally Americans don’t listen to Koreans, they don’t listen to indigenous people, they don’t listen to the black and brown communities, and they don’t listen to women. But a way to bridge that gap is for veterans to stand up because many Americans respect veterans.
As far as getting Veterans for Peace into North Korea, there hasn’t been talk about doing that. That would take a lot of organizing. But I do know there are some veterans who would be more than willing to go. There’s been several veterans who’ve been to South Korea and I think there’s a lot of veterans in our organization that care about Korean issues and some have joked about going to North Korea. But I think if we do go it would probably be an event that’s co-organized with other organizations in the U.S. It wouldn’t be just be a Veterans for Peace event.
PL: We’ve covered a lot this morning. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I wanted to ask, what do you think will be the work of Vets for Peace on the Korean solidarity issues in the near future. And also anything that we haven’t covered you would like to mention, please do.
WG: Veterans for Peace for several years has engaged in what we call the Korea Peace Campaign. It’s been members like Ann Wright and John Kim who have been trying to highlight the issues around Korea. Veterans for Peace is an anti-war organization and we do recognize that war is still technically and legally going on in the Korean peninsula. The Korean War hasn’t ended. And that’s an issue that we need to shine more light on. At the same time it’s been incredibly difficult because the U.S. has been dropping bombs on seven countries last year and even a now in the Philippines this year. The U.S. war machine is so big and so vast that it’s really been difficult.
But we have members who are very involved with getting Veterans for Peace focused on the Asia-Pacific, especially since the pivot to Asia was announced in 2011. The pivot to Asia is going to dominate U.S. foreign policy for the next few decades. And that’s something that Veterans for Peace needs to get a hold on. Vets for Peace just recently issued out a statement about North Korea and the tensions, not about North Korea, but the Korean Peninsula and the tensions surrounding the region. And I think Veterans for Peace will do will do as much as it can in the near future to stop this escalation, especially with this crazy guy, Trump, in office who’s just not making things any better.
PL: Well I have to say that the Vets for Peace has historically had a tremendous presence in the Bay Area and all the peace movement activities here and also on Korea. I want to thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing more about your work and wish you the best in everything you do.
WG: Thank you.
*Will Griffin is a former U.S. Army Paratrooper who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Will now focuses on anti-war activism and is on the Board of Directors of Veterans For Peace, the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and the steering committee of the Taskforce to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific. He is also the creator of The Peace Report, a social media organization focusing on anti-war media for peace & justice.
*Paul Liem is the Chair of the Korea Policy Institute Board of Directors.