Day 1B

Our next meeting was with members of the group known to us as NPA.  

Because we had been joined by a second person able to speak Korean, we were able to do simultaneous translation.  This would prove to be helpful because the time pressures made our allies in NPA speak with incredible speed.  In fact, they were sometimes so fast that even translation couldn’t keep up.  We managed to get notes but we were unsure of names of our speakers.  I’ve included notes that reflect this and in future you’ll notice that we make attempts to identify people as we go, but we do not always succeed.

To summarize, they gave us a briefing on the present situation in South Korea in terms of the fight against THAAD and then allowed us to speak.  When it was our turn to speak, I returned to my theme with the representative earlier:

First, US Labor Against the War stands firmly in opposition to THAAD. We believe it is bad for workers both here in South Korea and in the US.

Trade unions in the United States find themselves at a crossroads. Members and union leaders are far apart on what it means to move forward in the current political climate. The Building Trades unions have been working their way away from the rest of us in organized labor for a good while. Many union leaders and members with connections to industries experiencing losses or slow growth felt that Trump would be a “peace” leader, pulling us out of wars abroad to focus on Making America Great Again, as he said. Internally, we’d heard reports from members that Central Labor Councils (a mechanism for moving larger campaign work that is literally referred to as the heart of the American labor movement) cannot meet because Building Trade unions have withdrawn from active participation in many places. Without them, there is no quorum and votes can’t take place. This sabotage is intentional, time-consuming and hard to face.

Demilitarizing foreign policy then has, until recently, felt like issues in far away places that had no impact locally.
That, of course, is the opposite of what has happened. Those unions, up until the election, had little reason to be a part of USLAW. Post election they find themselves contending with a president who plans to drain public dollars from programs already hurting and put that money directly into the military-industrial complex. Union leaders are trying to find a way to talk about why this is happening and, even if they aren’t affiliated with us, are asking questions and trying to relate what is happening to their membership.

USLAW is working harder than ever to be a driving force in pulling the labor movement to the Left on issues of war. Union leaders are moving towards us slowly, but they are moving. THAAD is new for many, but it is truly not a new idea. Companies that are mentioned as constructing the equipment deployed are very familiar to us (Lockheed Martin for example.) The work we have ahead of us, the work that we want to do with you, is to connect the machinery of war abroad to the warmongers at home. USLAW has engaged in active campaign work around this and if we have time, I’d love to talk in more detail about it.  
Thank you and we stand in solidarity with you.

The translation for this was apparently a little challenging, so I left extra time and paced myself while speaking.  This was actually helpful as it meant I could take a breath and gather my thoughts.  

From here, things got interesting.  

The biggest point of interest for many of the people was the idea of war profiteering and its connection to the existence of THAAD and many of the questions I get are about how we are working on that connection.  When I mentioned the campaign, there was visible interest and I was asked about it in some detail in just about every conversation.  The assumption has always been that workers were very comfortable with making weapons because the jobs were good (decent pay and benefits.). The very idea that workers in the United States even care seemed to be anathema to those present.  Hearing that people wanted to know more and do something about it was very exciting.

After some pictures and side conversations we parted as friends and comrades in struggle.  The interactions were both long and deep, so by that point we were starving.  Luckily, we had an informal dinner scheduled with Peace People’s Action.  That group is a part of NPA but wanted some separate time with us.  We ate, drank, and talked in particular about their experiences working with NK back when SK folks could actually travel there.  I won’t lie – I was asked with some tenacity and persistence about whether I would go to NK and, after some soju was rather directly told that I needed to go and that they wanted an answer.  I asked them to convince me why I should and why it makes sense for my organization to send people.  They expressed the rather truthful observation that you can’t talk so forcefully about a place and its people without at least seeing them first.

I was eternally grateful that was our last appointment.  Full of soju and some type of pork with ginger, I crashed.  I had my first uninterrupted full night of sleep in Korea and I was really going to need it.

I’ll add the notes from the NPA meeting to the resource list.  If you want more info or pictures, let me know.  I might make a page for it.

 Day 1A:  Tangun

I think it makes sense to start every day with a little myth.  I find that knowing the story that begins a place helps you understand where it is now.

In Korea, there are few creation myths that start from the beginning, the very beginning. In a few oral traditions, a primal chaos exists until, unexpectedly, a crack appears, separating earth from sky. But these myths, those that survive, are not the colorful intricate histories of the Theogeny or the Enuma Elish. Korea’s most treasured myth is that of its own creation from an existing earth and the humans already living upon it. This is the myth of Tangun. 

     The story goes that a Heavenly Prince, Hwangun looked down at earth and desired to possess it and rule over mankind. His father, the Ruler of Heaven, Hwanin knew that his son would bring happiness to human beings and, looking at the earth, chose Mount Taebak as a suitable place for his son to go to earth. Hwangun arrives beneath a sandalwood tree where he creates a holy city. He brings with him three heavenly seals, somewhat mysterious in nature, and 3000 loyal subjects from heaven, which are possibly spirits. In addition, Hwangun brought three ministers, the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of Clouds. Different accounts of the myth tell that Hwangun either taught or took charge of 360 areas of responsibility, like agriculture and medicine. The story moves now to a bear and a tiger, both desiring to become human beings. Set the task of shunning sunlight and eating only the food given to them by Hwangun (some mugwort and twenty cloves of garlic), the bear succeeds in earning Hwangun’s approval while the tiger fails to fast, fleeing into the forest. The bear becomes a beautiful woman, Ungyo (bear woman) and becomes the wife of Hwangun. Their son is Tangun, the King of Sandalwood. Tangun becomes the first king of Korea, calling his country choson and ruling for 1500 years. After this time he retreats to Taebak-san to become a mountain god.

     Though the myth of Tangun begins with an already existing earth, it still bears some resemblance to the later portions of other creation myths. Like Marduk in the Enuma Elish, Hwangun descends to earth to create a paragon of cities, the City of God. Like the Enuma Elish and the Theogeny the parentage of the heroic king Tangun is very important as with Marduk in Zeus. In other ways, the myth is very different, having a scholarly air in contrast to the violence and melodrama of the other myths. Unlike the Enuma Elish and the Theogeny, the myth of Tangun portrays divine forces as a civilizing influence, bringing law and culture to humanity. The heavenly prince neither kills nor overthrows anyone to gain his power over Korea. Instead he brings down loyal subjects and ministers to establish a working, exacting government and teaches humanity 360 different useful ways of working. Korea is not created violently, but with a comforting feeling of calm efficiency.

–  Jessica Colberg 

Sidenote:  everyone here is a lot shorter than me.  And smaller.  It is often distracting and makes all photos of me appear as if I am a giant.  Pardon that and the look on my face.  They are related.

Wol-San Liem met us at the airport the previous night and installed us in our hotel in Seoul.  Because our organizer, Juyeon, had been detained in Laguardia, Wol-San became our handler of sorts and from then on would help us navigate the schedule.  Exhausted, we all hit the bed pretty hard that night though sleep was hard to come by.  Jet lag had thoroughly confused our internal clocks and I sadly woke up at 4 am, body ready to go after only 4 hours sleep.

 Wol-san met us in the lobby that morning. The KCTU office was just down the street from our hotel so we walked up for our first meeting:  an introduction and our first meeting about the schedule for our days.  We went around the room and talked about why we were there.  Wol-san laughed as we went around telling our individual stories, remarking that when asked to talk about themselves her union members would often just say their leader asked them to come.  When Americans are asked, we tell our whole life stories!  She assured us it was a good thing and asked us to continue.

Our schedule that morning had changed in a couple of ways.  Instead of morning meeting with our National People’s Action hosts, we were to meet with Representative Jae Kwon Shim at South Korea’s National Assembly, who is chairman of the foreign affairs and unification committee to talk about our opposition to deployment of THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. Admittedly, I was a little nervous.  Jet lag made me feel like I was swimming through very warm water that morning.  I wasn’t sure I would have the capacity to deal with a government official in unfamiliar country but… that’s the job.  Due to a lack of time, we moved on to that meeting immediately following our introduction.

We arrived at a large structure referred to as the National Assembly building.  After a briefing from our NPA comrades we developed what would be our first set of talking points together.  

I learned quickly that I would need to think differently about the way I communicated.  I am in love with story.  It can be said that I have developed an entire career around weaving narrative, fable, and occasionally tall tales of small men into everything that I do.  This has often meant that I rely heavily on metaphors to make the point.  When being translated, it is important to remember that not all metaphor translates well.  My reliance on story would need to be shortened, paced, and more direct.  I have adjusted accordingly on this trip and I think in the future, some of this may remain.

Our meeting time arrived and we entered a grand office in the National Assembly building to spend some time with Rep. Shim.  Thankfully the chairs were big enough for my large frame, so I could focus on something other than how massive I felt for a moment.  When it was my turn to speak, I dropped into my notes briefly and allowed for the metaphor I knew:

I need you to imagine a burning house.  Workers in the US who make weapons of war have told us that they are often left with the choice of supporting these destructive systems or poverty.  Their elected officials are made to fund these projects because if they don’t, they’ll be faced with the same choice.  A cycle is then perpetuated by unwilling participants who often feel that they have been locked in a burning house, unable to escape.  THAAD then represents a reinvestment in war that we cannot afford.

After we each finished, Rep.  Shim laid out that the problem he sees with THAAD is that it is bad technology that will do harm to the communities it is placed in in ways that are currently unknown because there isn’t data.   He wants to put it to a vote and ask why they are in such a hurry to put this into place.  As a side note, he pointed out that he shares the predicament workers in the United States find themselves in.  When he and others tried to shut down nuclear power plants, it was the workers that defended them because they needed the jobs.  They too would rather do something else… but something else wasn’t available.

We left with more information than what we arrived with.  The representative was warm and we moved on to our next meeting.

Originally I was going to write every day as one post but I get so little time to myself that I’m going to break them up.  I’ll still submit every day.  

Check Ignition and May God’s Love Be With You (1)

This will be my last prologue post, so those who normally read my work will notice a shift in style and content after today. I will do my best to go forward with grace but permit me if I stumble around a bit. My hope is that I will create something that sounds like me when I’m at work as opposed to something that sounds like me when I’m alone in my office… or doesn’t sound like me at all.  I’m also literally writing this from the future due to time-zone changes, so permit me.  To quote Morpheus from the Matrix, this might feel a little weird.

For those who are new to my writings, I appreciate your eyes on my work. I’m not a research-heavy writer. I do what I can to tell a story based in fact, even if it is one I am uncomfortable with. I want you to see what I see. If you have comments or questions, leave them wherever you please. Just remember Langston Hughes:

I play it cool

I dig all jive

That’s the reason

I stay alive

My motto

As I live and learn

Is dig and be dug in return

I’m in the air, finally, after delays and rebookings and dramatic seat switches that frighten white dudes. Seoul-Incheon is 12 hours away and at this point there’s nothing else to worry about in terms of getting here. The pilot tells us we will pass over Alaska, some ocean, Russia, and China on our way. Someday I hope to make stops in each of these places. For now, I arrive at my final destination on the 23rd at dinner time and in the meantime I’ll write a little… read a little… and watch a movie or two.  On longer flights, I am pretty consistent. I remain with the classics but lately one movie stays in rotation.  

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” with Ben Stiller isn’t a great work of art worthy of an Oscar.  It’s a cute little movie with some interesting notes here and there.  Nothing to write home about and totally consumed with the exploits of the main character.  At one point, as he contemplates a major decision, he remembers the motto of his employer Life magazine.  The reflection causes him to literally run toward a new life of adventure.  I did some digging and it turns out that it was taken from a longer quote attributed to the founder:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed…

This is truncated in the movie to a few lines and while they are good lines, to be fair, I think that this quote is better than the version in the film.

When I go to a place that I am strange to, I constantly remind myself to be present for the wonder of it.  Depression made that harder for a long time and I think often about vacations or trips to work while I was depressed and wonder how much better those experiences would have been if I was in better emotional health.  What great events do I miss?  What dangerous things do I not enter?

Again, mental health and politics blend together for me.  Our current political malaise makes this stuff seem obvious, I think, which is why people who kept their heads down and slogged through day after day are now suddenly “woke.”  I saw similar emergence during the financial crisis.  People had been feeling robbed for years anyway with wage stagnation and constant threats from their employers.  Horrible policy decisions by old white men with one foot in the grave, the other in a smoke-filled room where lives are ruined and the cameras are turned off… it was all somewhat mysterious.  With the growth of groups like Occupy and others, the veil was somewhat lifted.  People watched television and listened to podcasts that told them exactly who was robbing them… and it pissed them off.

Union members and their unions took some interesting turns during this period.  I can remember unions like the one I was working for going after private equity, staging protests outside of their holdings.  (You want to know fun?  Take a horde of lunch ladies and bus drivers to a building owned by a private equity group… and tell them Mitt Romney owns it.)  Our current moment, full of outrage and confrontation, feels like a logical next step in the battle against late-stage capitalism.

Our work in Korea over the next few days, particularly in light of the new regime in the US and SK, will also be about tapping into this moment on that level.  Discussions in the car ride from the airport rapidly moved into new coalition visions and how old models and institutions are needing to make hard decisions about being more nimble in the fast-paced world of Trumplandia.  Like Mitty, our movements are trying to figure out if we should run from our old forms.

I say run like Hell is behind us, lapping at our heels.  Nothin’ to lose but our chains.

Take Your Protein Pills and Put Your Helmet On (3)

Now that the trip is finally here, the build up often reminds me of A-Team episodes.

In my mind I know that the past month or so has been a long chain of communication between myself and quite a few people, but in that place between my intellectual mind and the emotional place the memories turn into a highlight reel.  A-Team has the best montage sequences and in these moments I get fierce montage envy.  I want the equipment assembly to military percussion and magical appearance of defensive weaponry just when I need it.

I get a flash of packing a bag or what I see through a clean windshield as I blow down the highway, none of it organized.  The sequence feels like it has its own beat, with cymbal crashes and horn breakdowns, creating a song out of the imperfection that is memory.  Less episodic television, more Metropolitan Bopera House (no, that was not a misspelling.)

Getting ready means hammering out a plan for myself, particularly around sleep.  As a person who can fall into depression much easier than most, I have a responsibility to myself to make sure that this trip doesn’t throw me off balance.  I went to my trusted psych doc, who laughed and said “Please tell me you didn’t book a middle seat.”  I laughed too, though it was more of a nervous chuckle.  I was sweating a little too.  He could tell I was a little scared.  Jet lag does a lot more to folks like me than others.

He first told me that the problem isn’t an insurmountable one.  Like it or not, I’m getting some jet lag and I’ll just need to deal.  One way is to use my CPAP on the plane, something I didn’t even know I could do.  Apparently the model I have is FAA-certified, so I can plug it in with no problems.  But he also pointed out that something I am often fixated on, hydration, is definitely a good place to start.  Drinking water can make the difference between recovering in a few days or struggling for weeks.

But he made it clear toward the end of our session:  while I don’t have a choice about whether or not I get jet lag, I certainly have a choice as to whether I embrace it as part of the human condition or fear it.  These choices define us and we can’t shy away from having them.  Life is full of risks and though we shouldn’t be foolish, some risks seem like they are worth taking.  I’ve been in good mental health for a few years now.  I take care of my brain and know myself better than ever before.  

I left the office less nervous.  I’ve had moments during the weeks leading up to this one where I was still gripped with fear.  But I have been thinking about my doc and what he said in relationship to my work.  There’s so much of the future of movement work that feels so risky right now.  The emergence of the alt-right as a force dragging the center farther and farther away has left a lot of movement builders feeling helpless.  It is a very different energy in this sweltering summer than the hard-driving winter and spring.  Folks are slowing down and seeing that this new paradigm won’t go away with pink hats and  safety pins.  An interesting byproduct is the linking of arms, a kind of desperate solidarity that we see so much when people struggle together.  I can’t lie… I’m really enjoying it despite the circumstances that got us here.

Being afraid isn’t a plan.  It is definitely a feeling, and we should respect that feeling, but it won’t get us where we need to be in this moment if we aren’t seeing it for what it is.  It needs to be faced with information and courage… we need that solidarity.  I think that’s what excites me most about this trip.  The kind of solidarity that this unlocks is so generative and deep.  Indeed, some of USLAW’s best work has been around bringing union members from far-flung regions close to one another.  Fear gives way to curiosity, catastrophizing gives way to scheming.

Someone asked me recently what I want to get out of this trip.  I had some pat answers but I think I know now that what I really want is to tap into the energy that can only come from that desperate solidarity.  I want to get people who feel the wall against their back to link arms with the stranger next to them.  To plot and scheme and plan.

Like Hannibal Smith from the A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together.

PS – The A-Team had a pro-union episode called Labor Pains where they organized a union in three days.  Look it up and watch with your friends.

This Is Ground Control to Major Tom (5)


My name is Reece Chenault and I’m National Coordinator for US Labor Against the War (also known as USLAW).  You can find our mission here, but to be brief we’re a labor organization working to demilitarize foreign policy.  We’ve been invited to participate in a peace delegation to South Korea hosted by a large coalition calling itself National People’s Action to Stop the Deployment of THAAD in South Korea (NPA.)  

For a little more information about what Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD is, check it out here.

As for NPA in Korea?  Here’s a synopsis:

The National People’s Action to Stop Deployment of THAAD in South Korea (NPA) is a national coalition made up of by some 100 civil society organizations. It was formed August 2016 (expanding an earlier formation) with the goal of achieving the repeal of the decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea. NPA understands THAAD to be a threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the entire East Asian region. NPA formed as the struggle against THAAD by residents in the Seongju area was developing in strength, with the specific goal of supporting this struggle and spreading awareness of the problems related to THAAD throughout the country.

Trade unions, specifically the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU,) are an essential part of this coalition.  Their participation necessitates ours as our organization is the only one working at the intersection of labor and foreign policy in the US.  Needless to say, we are honored and thrilled to be present with our allies in South Korea to talk about how we can work together to confront militarism.

But we first need to get there.

Our first conversations with our hosts happened at the end of May.  At that point I was in no way thinking that I’d end up in Korea at all.  USLAW was attempting to put together a conference call with Hyun Lee, a writer and activist, to talk about what was going on in North and South Korea and during a conversation with Hyun I mentioned that we often have a problem that I’m looking to center in my work.

When we as a society talk about foreign policy, we get a little stiff.  I can see it when I travel to talk to union members and I know what it means.  There’s a straightening in the spine and serious facial expressions.  People nod emphatically and tell me I’m really talking about imperialism, maybe even quoting some Che Guevara or Amilcar Cabral.  Language increases in density and people who aren’t using bigger words get quiet, maybe going back to work if we’re in a worksite location or looking at their phone if it’s social or informal.  There’s a sharp divide, and I think that our organization in the past has come down on the side of stiffened spines and wordy explanations of militarism and its abusive big brother/parent, imperialism.

I appreciate everything about academia and its impact on our work at the intersection of labor and peace.  Our organization enjoys fantastic relationships with writers, teachers, historians, librarians and all other types who explore and engage in this manner.  I love their tenacity and intellectual rigor.  Their skill and knowledge make us better as an organization.  But what about our comrades who aren’t part of the conversation in that way?  What about the rest of the workforce that isn’t from an academic background?  How do we reach union members and leadership who need to come at the problem of reliance on militarization as a solution to every American problem?

This isn’t to say that folks who aren’t in a classroom or library all day don’t care.  I’ve had interesting conversations about anti-militarism with folks who work in cafeterias, warehouses, and medical facilities.  They have plenty to say about how the military-industrial complex affects them and their families every day, we just weren’t talking to them.  Our commitment then needs to be to see this not as a political education problem requiring other people come to meet us.  We need to do a better job of meeting people where they are so we can push the labor movement together.

Hyun agreed to help us move forward by providing some opportunities to learn about what was happening in Korea, but that really seemed to be where this was all headed.  I figured we’d do a few things together, maybe even something in-personally in NYC with our chapter there, and that would be as deep as it would go for a while.  USLAW has done international delegations on a massive scale in the past, but that was a long time ago.

So when Ramsay Liem contacted me about possibly being a part of a delegation to Korea, I had to work very hard not to get my hopes up.  Building solidarity with union members in Korea could be a promising entrance into a new phase for us.  There’s so much potential that it’s hard not to explode in a burst of revolutionary glitter and rainbows at the thought of it.  

I said “Yes” and blocked off three gigantic sections of my calendar.  Then I called, emailed, and Facebook Messenger’d everyone I could think of.

“So… I might be going to South Korea…”



Resource List (July 2017 Trip)


This is a place for all the background information and links I have acquired in preparation for the trip.  Anything you need to know is going to be here.

Document concerning THAAD deployment in South Korea.​​

Bios of the delegation to South Korea.​​

Information about Korea’s Green Party.​​

Information about the organizations hosting our delegation. Includes a brief on Korean Trade Union organization.​​

Environmental Impact Assessment for THAAD installation.​​

This is the current position of the South Korean government on THAAD and some national security policy positions.

If I have more, I’ll post more here!