By Paul Liem, August 23, 2017 | December 29, 2017
This is the fifth and last in a series of interviews with the five-member U.S. Solidarity Peace Delegation to South Korea from July 23 to July 28, 2017. The delegation coordinator, Juyeon Rhee, was denied entry to South Korea under a travel ban imposed by the Park Geun-hye administration, a ban that remained in force under the new administration of President Moon Jae-in.
The delegates met with South Korean peace and labor activists, the Chair of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee Shim Jae Kwon, and villagers of Seongju, Gimcheon, and Soseong-ri 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 as well as the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation. It 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 CODEPINK, 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 spearheaded 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 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 Juyeon Rhee follows.
PL: It’s August 23 and we’re talking with Juyeon Rhee, one of the organizers of the Solidarity Peace Delegation that visited Korea in July. Juyeon, you were the only Korean American on this delegation and you’ve been involved in Korea peace work based in the United States for many, many years since your college years. What started you on your trajectory of activism and what were the circumstances leading to your immigration to the U.S.?
JR: I was a sophomore in college in 1988 when my family decided to leave for the U.S. My idea was to come, help my family adjust, and then go back because I was involved in the student movement as a freshman.
PL: What school?
JR: I was at Ewha Womans University, a freshman in 1987. So, starting in April, there were many street demonstrations and rallies against the continuation of military dictatorship, and many study groups were being formed. I had no idea before I went to college what was going on or knowledge of social issues. But as students, we got mobilized through various clubs and study groups. That was the atmosphere then; as a college student you owed society and you had to do something for the community and society.
I wasn’t fully participating until the beginning of May, but I got arrested just by walking through the street where there was a rally. The police picked me up. And then I was confined to this police car for four hours. The detention center in Seoul was full. It was full and no one could check in so they dropped me off, I think it was in Suwon or Incheon in Kyonggido, and I had to find my way back to Seoul. After that, I wanted to find out what was going on.
PL: This was the great popular uprising against the military dictatorships. That period, right?
JR: Right. At the time Chun Doo Hwan was trying to make Roh Tae Woo his successor so people were demanding that they wanted direct voting, popular election. People wanted to vote for the president. We won. The June uprising happened and we won. The next year, my parents told me that we were going to the U.S., the beast of the imperialist forces, the one that had divided Korea, and the center of global imperialism. I didn’t want to come to the U.S.
Anyway I came. I went to Stony Brook State University of New York the following year. I think in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there were nine different organizations in New York. These sprung up in response to the Kwangju massacre in 1980.
PL: Korean organizations?
JR: Yes, all predominately Korean-speaking, just like in Korea. They were trying to mobilize and educate the communities. And my school, because it was only one hour away from New York City, there were people coming in to teach how to play buk and janggu and pungmul. Slowly I got exposed to them and I thought, oh, maybe we can do something here while I stayed in the U.S.
I got involved in a student organization called Center for Korean American Culture and I played janggu and buk. It was a cultural troupe. Our goal was to demystify the “American Dream.”
Then in 1992, the LA Uprising happened and, just before then, an African American teenager, Latasha Harlins, was killed by a Korean liquor store owner, Du Soon Ja. There were also tensions between African Americans and Korean store owners in Brooklyn, Flatbush. So there were a lot of racial tensions.
At that time, we had a lot of discussions about what is the best identity or identifier for immigrants. Are we Koreans in the U.S., or “Korean-hyphen-Americans,” or “Korean Americans,” or are we “Americans with Korean heritage”? There were a lot of discussions and studies about immigration, civic rights, and about what are the best ways to change the society or community. I felt that Korean people in Korea can do the reunification work and that Koreans here in the U.S. should do more on immigration issues or racial issues.
PL: So what did you make of what happened in Los Angeles and the killing of Natasha Harlins? How did you process that?
JR: In our organization, we did a study group and concluded that the Korean community was like a filler between blacks and whites in the context of a racist society. We were caught up in the middle of the racial tensions and ended up playing by the rules of the racist society, chasing the American Dream. We concluded that we needed to educate our community that the American Dream is a myth, and that we needed to work and build our identity as a people of color in solidarity with other communities of color. We were saying that we are workers, we are people of color. And so we created these songs, too, in Korean.
PL: What’s an example of the lyrics of some of the songs, do you remember.
JR: (singing in Korean). So it’s [the song is] about a worker who has to wake up very early in the morning and then go and then stand in the deli store for 12 hours and work. And she sees the people going back and forth and she’s just a cashier, not a person. And what’s our hope? When I quit this job, another person will come and be treated like that. But we are the ones who are forming the community and who’s holding the community or society up from the bottom up. So we are capable of being an agent for change. This type of thing.
PL: Later on, though, you also got involved in reunification work.
JR: Yes, so good friends of mine went to North Korea with a community organization based in New York, Nodutdol for Community Development or “NDD.” I think I started paying membership dues starting in 2000. I went to a couple meetings and back and forth but I was never really deeply involved until 2002 when I went to North Korea for the first time with an NDD education and exposure delegation, called the DPRK Education and Exposure Program (DEEP).
PL: It seems like a big transition to go from being focused on working on Korean immigrant issues to organizing a DEEP delegation to North Korea. What transpired to make that change?
JR: So Nodutdol had three committees at that time. We had a health committee and we had the education committee and then we had a Korea solidarity committee. I didn’t want to be on the Korea solidarity committee, but since I was not a teacher or in the health field, I joined the Korea solidarity committee.
I thought, ok, these people are second generation and don’t know as much about Korea. So maybe it’s important for them as second generation or non-Korean speaking Korean Americans to get connected to their Korean heritage, claiming it as their own. So I was kind of a bystander to reunification work. Anyway, when my friends came back from the first delegation to North Korea, they insisted that I should go. It’s an eye-opening experience, they said. That’s when I went.
Those on the first delegation were Korean-speaking. Those on the second delegation, with the exception of me, were English-speaking. That’s a big difference. Off we went, but North Korea was not ready. There was no translator for us. They expected that, like the Koreans from Japan, we should all speak Korean. From day one, we were struggling with language issues. We didn’t speak Korean at all. They didn’t expect it. It was a horrible trip for me. Horrible, horrible. I came back and I said we really need to work on this program, otherwise this is not worthwhile to repeat. That was what I reported, and in 2003, I volunteered to be the program coordinator for the 2004 delegation.
I wrote to North Korea six or seven, eight months ahead of the trip. I wrote to them and said we need an English translator and we need to diversify the program a little more. I told them that I want to go here, I want to go there, I want to go to a court, we need to spend a little more time on a farm, etc. Anyway I wrote a seven-page long letter. My friends were skeptical. They felt, well, it’s not going to change. North Korean people have their agenda. They want us to see certain things. And you know, it’s going to fall on deaf ears. So I said I’m just going to write to them and see what happens. I got no reply. But when we arrived in Pyongyang, our hosts were carrying a copy of my letter all underlined, highlighted and commented with notes. And you know, they came and they switched the entire program around to accommodate our interests. And that was one of my biggest lessons. Even if you think it’s not going to work, you still have to try, you can’t just assume it’s not going to work. All we needed to do was ask.
They realized we were different from the groups coming from Japan but they didn’t know what our goals were, what we wanted to see, what our interests were. They said they all read my letter, and the only criticism I got was that we would need to stay a month to do all the things we asked. They said try to prioritize your goals and then communicate them beforehand.
On that trip, the North Koreans provided an excellent, amazing English speaker as a translator. She stayed with us most of the time. All site visits, she came. She never visited the U.S. or England or traveled elsewhere abroad, but her English was perfectly understood. Everyone loved her and the more she spent time with us, the more we got to know her. You know, she was someone that we really connected with at a very personal level.
I think the peace group, Women for Genuine Security, published an article about translation. It said that translation is a political act. And through that experience, I learned that language is really, really important. The vocabulary, the right vocabularies are critical. But all that does not come to you naturally. You have to study it. You have to acquire it. Afterwards, I created a vocabulary list of easy North Korean words for our curriculum.
DEEP is a people’s delegation so the delegates also make an impression on the people they meet in North Korea. Our delegates need to interact appropriately, conveying their thoughts, and attitudes, in words and gestures, that resonate with the people on the receiving end.
So after 2004, I realized, okay, as a first-generation immigrant activist who is bicultural and bilingual I may have an important role to play in the Korean solidarity movement. I can help build solidarity between activists here and those in Korea. What do we need to do? What motivates people to learn, what motivates people to connect? How can I be a better mediator of these two coming together?
In my mind, that’s the process of reunification. I realized that we have many different levels of division.
Reconciliation and reunification became something that I wanted to see and I wanted to practice with in our community organizing.
PL: The NDD delegations to North (DEEP) and South Korea (KEEP) were composed of Korean Americans. This most recent delegation, the Solidarity Peace Delegation to South Korea, was composed of American peace activists. Why the change in composition?
JR: We came to realize that in the eyes of the Koreans in Korea, we tend to be accepted as one of them rather than as representative of the U.S. peace movement. So it’s important for our delegations to represent the peace movement more broadly. The mission of the Solidarity Peace Delegation was to support the Seongju villagers in their struggle against THAAD deployment, against the militaristic policies of the U.S. We wanted to make sure that we were more representative of U.S. peace groups. We decided to bring on representatives from diverse sectors.
PL: Did you feel like that was accomplished?
JR: I think so. Ramsay [Liem] is actually the one who has to be commended for this. Jill Stein has a long history with environmental groups, and also understands the U.S. political system and party politics; Medea Benjamin is a leader in the women’s movement who understands the importance of advocacy work and the inner workings of Washington D.C.; then we had Will Griffin of Veterans for Peace and is connected with the more militant sector of the peace movement; and Reese Chenault who is connected to the progressive voices in U.S. labor—the anti-racist and anti-imperialists sectors of the labor movement. All the delegates have histories of struggling against U.S. militarism abroad and for struggling social justice here in the U.S. It was a very diverse group and they did an excellent job of representing progressive forces here.
PL: Do you think there was any breakthrough in terms of making connections between American peace movement and the villagers in Seongju at a human level?
JR: The delegation was only four people. It’s a very small number but they made a lasting impression on villagers. Before, when the villagers talked about the U.S., the U.S. was assumed to be unknown entity, forcing this THAAD war machine onto their village. And now, after meeting the delegates, they have a clearer idea about the U.S.—that, ah, it’s a country and they have citizens just like us who are fighting against the THAAD and militarism.
So the delegation did an impressive job in making people aware that there are people who are fighting against the militaristic approaches of the state in the U.S. as well. But for the peace movement, I don’t know. It’s hard, though, Paul, when there is a problem or when there is a bombing or bombing in Afghanistan and then the next day the North Korea issues flare up and the following day there is Palestine. Addressing all of those issues and connecting the struggles without emphasizing one over the other is a big challenge. We have more work to do.
PL: Unfortunately you were not able to join up with the Solidarity Peace Delegation in Korea. The South Korean government had banned your entry into the country a year earlier when you and peace activist, Hyun Lee, had organized another delegation of peace activists. That ban was still in effect while you were organizing the Solidarity Peace Delegation. But you still bought your ticket and were ready to go. What made you decide to go for it when you knew that the odds were not in your favor? And how do you feel about that whole issue of being banned?
JR: I think I feel a little sad. At the time I didn’t know how to feel, to process it all. It was kind of numbing. It was a survival instinct to try not to feel. I wanted to go for it because when Moon Jae-in became president everyone said everything has changed. People acted as if all the misdeeds of the South Korean state are over, and the new Moon administration will be different. I cannot deny that I had similar hopes too. So I was hoping for the best.
PL: Will you continue to work on these kinds of delegation projects even though you may not be able to travel to Korea? Do you feel like this is work that you can continue under the present circumstances?
JR: Yes. As much as I can, I would like to. However, if you cannot participate and share in the moments there are limitations. You cannot help rectify something when something’s not going right, or step in and mediate right away, so it’s frustrating.
But I’m not the only one who has been denied entry into South Korea. Others have been denied entry; people in Japan historically, numerous times, and people in Germany, too. I heard that a committee in South Korea has been gathering the names of people who have been denied entry under the past administrations. So there are many of us, and we all have to work under similar circumstances in with the same restriction. They never stopped working for reunification and to end the Korean War with a peace treaty.
So I take this as a challenge, and I am trying to sort out what my roles can be in terms of supporting future solidarity trips. But that South Korea is banning peace activists from its shores, that the U.S. is banning South Korean peace activists from its shores and also banning the travel of U.S. citizens to North Korea, is outrageous. It’s political repression. But I do have a dream. I want to organize more delegations to South Korea and North Korea. I think it’s of high importance as the U.S. peace movement does not fully understand the impacts of U.S. policy on Korea, and especially North Korea.
PL: What do you see as the endgame of the Korea solidarity movement in this country?
Peace treaty is the only thing. We must have a guarantee that there will never be another Korean War. If we cannot have a peace treaty right away, then we can call for non-aggression treaty as a first step towards agreeing upon the terms of a peace treaty. Diplomacy has to start right away. So many people even in the U.S., ex-politicians and ex-officials of the U.S. government, are calling for engagement with North Korea. I think the U.S. government should learn something from history, its own history, and act now to make peace with North Korea. Without the guarantee of peace, denuclearization is not realistic.
PL: I think certainly that the timing of the Solidarity Peace delegation was critical—just in time to start speaking out against Trump’s “fire and fury” bluster. In closing I wanted to ask if there anything else that you would like to share, or anything that we missed?
JR: Unfortunately I don’t think we can rely on the Moon Jae-in administration. Although he may want to take the lead in facilitating peaceful North and South relations, as the South Korean President, he is under pressure not to undermine the U.S.-South Korea military alliance. It doesn’t seem that he’s inclined to push back on those pressures. Still, we must continue to push his administration in that direction, especially now, as Trump is threatening to engulf North Korea in fire and fury. Of course this cannot be done without engulfing all of Korea in fire and fury.
And I do want to end this interview by saying I was really touched by all the support that I got. A lot of people contacted me personally. A lot of people wrote signed petitions denouncing the ban. The delegation also worked on a press release opposing the ban. They spoke beautifully in support of my entry, and I really appreciated that. All of this support lifts my spirits and encourages me to keep working to build solidarity between progressive forces in the U.S. and in all of Korea.
PL: You are loved by all who have worked with you. Certainly among the younger activists, you’re a role model and even for us older ones. You’ve always been out there in front, and we will always have your back.
JR: Thank you so much.
*Juyeon Rhee is a first-generation Korean immigrant grassroots organizer whose work is focused on de-militarization, minority rights, reunification and reconciliation in Korea. Juyeon is a member of the Taskforce to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific, Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, and the editorial advisory board of Zoom in Korea, as well as a board member at the Korea Policy Institute.