Historian Brett Walker, in his disturbingly important new book, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, draws important historical linkages between economic development, industrial pollution, pain, and the body in service of the nation-state. Though singularly focused on the toxic ramifications of Japan’s modern developmental state, his treatment holds important lessons for societies — and local communities, the unlucky protagonists of his tale — across the globe. This is especially true of Korea, where recent events have thrown into sharp focus the toxic legacies of the Korean War.
Hackneyed though it might sound, the legacies of the Korean War are many and various, not unlike the actors behind them. While one need not strain to find conspicuous examples in the present day⎯ the DMZ foremost among them⎯a number of less readily discernible legacies lie buried deep beneath the surface of the peninsula. The toxic cocktail of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, better known as Agent Orange, is one such legacy.
Although most widely known for its widespread deployment in the Vietnam War, unclassified documents, testimony, and an upsurge of recent activism in Korea have begun to shed light on the use of Agent Orange in Korea — a toxic defoliant deployed near the DMZ to reduce dense foliage thereby enhancing the ability to monitor enemy positions. Although papers have arrived at different figures (both in terms of volume and area) it is generally thought that the US military in the late 1960’s sprayed 21,000 gal. (79,000 L) of agent orange across approx. 6,840 hectares.
This, however, is not the figure that captivates the public attention. Rather, it is the estimated 50,000 Korean soldiers who sprayed the chemical by hand, many of whom now suffer from a wide range of maladies, that looms large in the public consciousness. While these veterans continue to wage a campaign for recognition and treatment, they have consistently struggled to find a voice capable of rallying public support behind their cause. Despite a steady stream of articles in Korean dailies in recent months and the creation of committee charged to investigate the incident, little has been done to seek redress for the Korean handlers of the toxin nor to candidly address where, and to what extent, these toxins remain in the Korean ecosystem.
Further stoking public resentment is increasing evidence that the US buried 250 55 gallon drums of barrels in Camp Carroll. Although the military has insisted that they removed all of the barrels in the 1990’s, a Korean Government’s investigation committee is presently working its way through former sites in order to assess the existence of toxic particulates in and around the watersheds of these former sites. No conclusive results have been reached.
An appropriate coda to this story is perhaps to draw attention to yet another (albeit markedly different) ecological battleground being staked out on Korean soil – the island of Jeju-do where the Korean Navy has, according to Christine Ahn in a recent FPIF piece, torn a local community apart with its slated plan to construct a naval base on the coastline, thereby endangering an already delicate ecosystem, to say nothing of the community of Ganjeong itself. She writes: “…The base’s impact isn’t limited to land. Off the coast of Jeju is the absolutely stunning Tiger Island and its sparkling surrounding waters, a UNESCO ecological reserve. According to Koh Yoo-Ki, an environmental policy analyst from Jeju, the planned naval base construction would destroy 98 acres of ocean floor inhabited by soft coral reef and nine endangered species.” (For a more strategically-minded, but equally sobering take on the base construction see Todd Crowell’s take here.)
This is, in fact, a story that is far from unique to Jeju-do. Although things are relatively quiet in Okinawa (and Guam) these days, a similar conflict between military installations and environmental protection, economic incentive and preservationism is playing out in a handful of other communities across Asia — many of which, a case could be made, are inextricably linked to the geopolitical order carved out by the Korean War. Which is precisely why, looking-forward, it is important to dwell not only on the obvious geopolitical legacies of this conflict but also the less-readily-apparent ecological and human-health costs that remain largely untold.