The Rev. Bill Bichsel, an 86-year-old Tacoma priest known for his acts of civil disobedience, has returned from a trip to South Korea to protest construction of a naval base there.
Just three months ago, Bichsel was seriously ill and in the hospital in Tacoma. But his health — while still frail due to a heart condition — improved to the point he was able to make the trip using a wheelchair.
He said his doctors didn’t try to stop him from traveling.
“They just shake their heads,” Bichsel said. “They know I’m going so they don’t make a big fuss.”
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For nearly 40 years, the Jesuit priest known as “Bix” has protested against U.S. military programs and weapons. He’s been arrested dozens of times for trespassing during protests and jailed more than a half-dozen times.
He wasn’t arrested in South Korea, but he realized the 12-day trip could set his health back.
“I know I could go anytime,” Bichsel said.
He was weak upon returning Nov. 20, but has gotten stronger since. And he was inspired by the trip.
Bichsel and nine other people — nearly all from the Puget Sound area — traveled to Jeju Island to commit what he called “acts of civil resistance” against construction of a base by the South Korean Navy. The base has been under construction on the island off the southern tip of Korea for eight years.
The efforts to stop it has been underway at Gangjeong Village since construction started, Bichsel said. The movement has united Catholics, Buddhists and those of no religious affiliation.
“It’s the most inspiring, unified resistance that I’ve experienced,” he said.
Bichsel said residents of the area believe the base will be used to service U.S. Navy ships. Some of those vessels could be armed with missiles as part of a defense system, he said.
The base is a few hundred miles from China.
The group joined other protesters — including Korean Catholic nuns and local villagers — to block cement trucks from entering the base.
They sat in chairs in front of the gate. Bichsel sat in a wheelchair. While they blocked the entrance, a priest celebrated the Mass across the street about 50 yards away as part of the resistance.
The protesters didn’t move until Korean police carried them away so the cement trucks could enter.
Three police officers picked Bichsel up in his wheelchair four or five times a day and pulled him to the side, he said.
He and the others would then go back and resume sitting in front of the gate.
“It’s sort of like a choreography,” said Bichsel, who uses a wheelchair because he can’t walk long distances.
The protesters, who numbered on average about 20, slowed the trucks but didn’t stop them from entering the base. No one was arrested, Bichsel said.
He also protested at the Jeju Island base during another trip in September 2013.
The priest said he’s demonstrating against the “continual militarization of South Korea, as well as our world, through the U.S. military.”
Local residents “know eventually the base will be built, but that doesn’t stop the villagers from standing up against it,” he said.
Bichsel, whose trip was financed by donations, said he was inspired by the commitment of Koreans who oppose the base.
“We get from them just a tremendous sense of faithfulness, living out what you believe, trying to stop the militarization.”
Bichsel has no immediate plans to return to South Korea. He’s planning his next act of civil disobedience much closer to home Jan. 17.
That’s when he plans to take part in an annual protest against nuclear weapons at the Navy’s Bangor submarine base on Hood Canal.