DAECHU-RI, South Korea — Residents forced to vacate their homes to make room for the Camp Humphreys expansion bade their farming village a tearful farewell Saturday with ceremonies symbolizing both defeat and defiance.
The ceremonies marked a public end to more than two years of often-violent resistance to a South Korean government effort to move residents from a belt of villages near Humphreys so the U.S. military can expand onto a 2,238-acre tract.
The last of the residents, mostly elderly farmers, moved from Daechu-ri last week. Hundreds of others had left the villages at various times over the past two years after accepting government compensation.
“We are defeated, but we will not give up,” said Father Mun Jeong-hyeon, a Catholic priest who for several years has been the leading figure in opposing the Humphreys expansion.
Mun acknowledged that “physically, it will be impossible” to block the expansion because South Korean security forces last year seized control of the contested lands and turned them into a restricted area laced with concertina wire and other obstacles guarded by South Korean soldiers. But he said expansion opponents acted in a “just” cause and that many take satisfaction in a conviction that the U.S. military will some day depart South Korea.
Humphreys is to triple in size and become the U.S. military’s flagship installation under a South Korea-U.S. agreement. U.S. forces in Seoul and to its north eventually will relocate to the expanded camp.
One lifelong Daechu-ri resident, Kim Wol-soon, 70, said leaving the house her family built early in her life left her feeling as though she’s suffered a death in her family. She was among villagers who recently agreed to move into the village of Songhwa-ri, where the government has set up temporary residences for those displaced by the project.
The government also found her a job planting flowers along public roads.
Saturday’s events went forward in a village where house after house lies in rubble. Government work crews last September used earthmovers to render buildings uninhabitable. They left untouched only those still occupied by holdouts.
Residents expect the government to complete the demolition and clear the land now that they’ve left.
After that, Mun said, “Nobody will be allowed to get in” to the area.
At one point during the afternoon an elderly woman dropped to her knees as she passed the rubble of what had been a one-story church that served the village. Clasping a large chunk of masonry, she began a crying that quickly became a keening. She moaned repeatedly a Korean word of vexation or grief.
“Aay-go-oh-oh,” she wailed. “Aay-ay-go-oh-oh.”
Several women rushed to comfort her.
The ceremonies began earlier with about 125 people walking from the village to a small bridge about a half-mile out amid what until last year had been rice fields.
Authorities knew of the planned ceremonies and made no attempt to stop them. A handful of police stood behind shields near the bridge, but there were no confrontations.
The group gathered below two towering bamboo-strip statues meant to serve as totem-like guardians of the villagers’ welfare, Mun said. The statues, each 30 or more feet high, were set afire.
Mun said the burnings symbolized something akin to suicide because the figures had failed to ward off misfortune and no longer had a reason to exist. He said the concept had its roots in a native totemist religion.
The group took part in several other ceremonial acts, in one of which an object in the shape of a boat was burned, signifying the displaced residents’ hope that they can one day return to their former lands.
Workers have already begun readying one portion of the expansion lands for eventual construction, and work crews could be seen in the distance as the ceremonies were under way.