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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.)
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…”