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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Building Friendships, Building Peace

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Sept. 15 (Yonhap) -- Muscles ripple as young arms shovel cement and sand into a cone and form a crater in its center, unconsciously mimicking the volcanic peaks that dot the landscape of Jeju, a semi-tropical honeymoon island off South Korea's south coast.
The scorching sun is beating down upon a group of university students, now working as manual laborers. One girl pours water into the crater and the group begins to mix concrete by hand, sweat dripping from them as they laugh and joke in a mixture of Korean, Russian, English and gesture. Elsewhere on the site, others manhandle huge pieces of Jeju basalt into place to form a seating area.
Most of the students from seven countries that edge the Pacific Ocean met only several weeks earlier, when they arrived in South Korea to build the sixth Pacific Rim Park (PRP) on the coastline of Jeju.
"We really build our friendships on what we share, not on what we disagree on," James Hubble, the founder and artistic director of the PRP project, said in a speech during a recent dedication ceremony. Dignitaries who attended the ceremony included Jeju Gov. Woo Keun-min and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens.
The Jeju park is the sixth PRP project. Japan is the only country represented that does not yet have a park, but it's likely the next host wiil be Peru or Nicaragua. Sister parks sit on the shorelines of Russia, the United States, China, Mexico and the Philippines. Organizers want one park in each nation that borders the Pacific.
A pearl was a major feature in the first park, built in Vladivostok in 1994 "when Gorbachev was opening up Russia," Hubble said.
Hubble said he had formed a friendship with Gennady Turmov, president of Vladivostok's Far Eastern State Technical University, while in the country on an artist exchange and the two decided to create a park near the university.
Students from the United States and one from Mexico labored side by side with their Russian counterparts in a team effort few would have imagined even a decade earlier.
That stand-alone project grew into the PRP Project, which was established in 1995 as a non-profit corporation based in San Diego, where the second park was built in 1998. Financing for the parks is obtained through sponsorship and fundraising activities.
Prof. Koh Seong Joon of Jeju National University, who worked with PRP on the Korean project, said Jeju island was suggested as an ideal site for a Pacific Rim Park about two years ago and the preparation process and fundraising began shortly after.
He lauded the PRP project, saying that it helps build connections between cultures, many of whom have a long history of conflict. The university provided housing for the students, who only had to pay their travel costs. Organizers said about 80 percent of each park is funded by the home country, with the remainder provided by the project.
Each park is designed by the participating students so all differ in design, but they are united by a stylized pearl placed in each. The symbolism of the pearl, the organizers said, is of something that promotes harmony.
The Jeju park is about one-third the size of a football field and is the largest of the Pacific Rim Parks to date, Koh said, describing it as an area for reflection rather than play. Its pearl focus is located in the center of a semi-circular seating area that faces out to the Pacific Ocean.
Another feature of the park is an ascending spiral that leads to a grandmother sculpture, which represents both Seolmundae Halmang - the giant goddess that local legend credits with creating Jeju Island - and the strong women the province is also famous for.
Though on a coastal road, the site is relatively isolated but its location on "olle" trails guarantees frequent visitors. The trails are hundreds of kilometers of interconnecting walking paths on Jeju that have proven popular to visitors.
Sixteen years after it began, the PRP project continues to expand and connect Pacific communities. Much has changed in the interim and for most of the students working on Jeju's park, named "Stepping Stones of the Pacific," former enmities are simply historical footnotes.
Aleksandr Motorina, a 23-year-old student from Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok, expressed excitement about the project, saying that she also worked on the Philippine park with similar excitement and has visited her hometown's sister city of San Diego. She said she can't remember the time Russia and America were enemies.
"I was only three," she said. "I only know what my parents told me about from the past and some little, little memories."
For her, she said, the parks are not just construction projects but "about people, and feelings and the experience of connecting."
Although few of the students have personal memories of any conflict with their Pacific neighbors, Jeju bears its own scars. Military caves and tunnels in the cliffs and an adjacent disused airfield stand testament to the occupation of the island by Japan during World War II.
The students all spoke of the sense of community and family they now had with former strangers from other lands and how that will stay with them wherever they go.
"This is something that is not going to stop," said one of the students, Garrett Goodwin, 27, from San Diego. "It's a symbol of peace. It's a symbol of dedication and creativity through actions, through bridging the gap between the language barriers that we have and trying to understand each other just by working together."

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