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the strAnge ball

Over four years, photographer Noh Suntag journaled his gradual discovery of a mysterious ball that hovered over a South Korean village.



the strAnge ball #BHD2404

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BHD2404, 2007

The series  the strAnge ball  depicts photographer Noh Suntag’s process of discovering the identity of a white, massive structure that stood in the middle of a wide field in Daechoori village, Paengseong-eup, Pyoungtaek Korea. In his approximately 100-page work journal, Noh Suntag recorded interviews with the villagers, inquiry letters sent to the US army headquarters in Korea, information collected through a search engine across domestic and international sites, as well as consultative information from military advisers on the materials and purposes of the structure. The series also shows what happened to the old farmers who lived around the white ball. 

The name of this high capacity radar is Radome, a combined word of Radar and Dome. It represents the status of the US in the Korean Peninsula, which has a strong influence on Korean politics, holding complete control over national security and information. The Daechoori village in Pyoungtaek was completely destroyed by a massive US military base extension project, under a plan of “strategic flexibility”. The Daechoori villagers have a long history of exploitation by foreign forces; firstly during the Japanese colonial period and again after the breakout of the Korean War, by US military forces. The agricultural communities that survived these hard times were completely dismantled during the violence of 2006. 

Our society could not provide a proper solution for the desperate appeals of the old farmers asking for what and for whom they had to endure such suffering. 

the strAnge Ball  series consists of about 100 photographic images. The image of Radome harmonises uncannily with the surrounding sceneries, sometimes hiding itself and sometimes highlighting itself in the scene. It might seem that we are free to enjoy the disguising skill of the naughty, strange ball, but it actually might be the will of the monster. 

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BGD1512, 2006

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BGD1512, 2006

Working notes 

“Say, it’s about 7 or 8 years. We have no idea; we just thought it might be such a water tank or something. Later, people say it is an oil tank, or something like an antenna. Why should we know about such thing? Isn’t it simple if we just consider it as a big ball? It sometimes makes the scene of our village very familiar when I find it in a distance.” 

The “ball” is about 8 years old. A titan with 30 meters height, WHO ARE YOU? This project is about the weird ball standing on the field of Daechu-ri (Paengseong-eup Pyeongtaek-si Gyeonggi-do), and the people living their life of farmer around the “ball”. 

1. The “ball” is HUGE

You can see it easily within a radius of 15 km. 30 metres high might not be a big deal if you think about the skyscrapers of cities, but in the open field of Paengseong-eup, without high mountains, the ball above 30 metres high should be quite noticeable. 

As you see it in distance, you may think it is just a kind of water tank. However, it is somewhat weird-looking with the perfect shape of a sphere. Oil tanks, especially liquefied gas tanks can be in the shape of a sphere, because spheres can endure high pressure. However, such oil or gas tanks should be set up near the surface of the earth, or beneath it, because of the possibility of explosions. 

So white… The ball looks so bright that it is shining. Standing still on the wide field, the ball is overbearing, over the dark green of spring and summer. Getting closer as if you are nothing, making me curious… 

Who Are You? 

2. Google Earth

I tried to find this ball through Google Earth. The high-resolution satellites of the USA that can even figure out automobiles to me is not only a fascination but also a fear. It was interesting to find my house and my friend’s house and my parents’ house. I could also jump over Pyongyang and Cheongwadae (the Blue House), and the pyramids of Egypt within a few minutes. Fascinating! 

However, how high could the resolution of a Pentagon military satellite be? How fearful. The technology is fascinating, but the people exercising the technology are scary. Whatever — I could find the extensive field of Paengseong-eup Daechu-ri, and Dodu-ri easily. Nevertheless, the ball’s location was forbidden, because it is military area. I already knew that the ball was the property of the Camp Humphreys, the US Armed Force in Korea. 

What I could find through Google Earth was a clear view of the village, field, and the estimated coordinates of the white ball, among the hazy outline of Camp Humphrey. There were 17 digital numbers. 

3. Strangers become well-known friends

I visited Daechu-ri frequently during the last 3 years. It was strange, seeing houses in clusters beside the US Armed Forces’ hedgehog. The village was going through a huge crisis. It would have been silly to miss the vast field, the Hwangsaewool. It would have been a lie, if you were to say that you were standing on your feet in that place, and had missed the white ball. 

What the…? 

Although I had curiosity, I didn’t ask anything about the ball. As the ball was located in a military area, it should have been a military installation. In addition, it did not seem very important, maybe it was just a kind of a tank that can contained water or oil. What is that…? 

I had been curious about it since I could repeatedly identify that almost nobody knew what the exact usage of the installation was. Residents did not know about the ball clearly, neither did activists who continued claiming for the withdrawal of US Army. Meeting with the ball after many times, it became more and more familiar to me. Gradually, the number of photographs about the ball grew. White ball and people, the wheat field, birds, flowers, trees, dogs, bulls, cats, water, hedgehogs, houses, vehicles, the moon, clouds, and flags were in the photographs all together. 

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BFH0901, 2005

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BFH0901, 2005

4. Radome

However, I can say that those are probably connected, but not in proportion to each other. I still did not know the truth about the white ball. 

I had asked for help from the Public Information Office of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, and uploaded many pictures on the Internet portal site for the information. There was no answer from the Public Information Office. But, luckily, someone sent me a memo through the Internet site:

“This is not a ball… Weren’t there any air forces’ airfields nearby the photographing spot? If there are any, it should be some kind of radar.” 

Actually, I had already guessed it could have been radar. I wanted to know the exact name, material, and usage, so I asked that “someone” again:

“I’m sorry, but such military information about material or capability is not open to the public, moreover those US military equipments are forbidden. I just know that this sphere-shaped radar is much better than rectangle-shaped radars in their capability of detection, and almost every large-scale US Armed Force is using this kind of radar. You should find out from somebody who served in the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation Troops to the US Army) radar troops with the US Air Force if you want to know more.”

That was all. I had to find some experts. I was able to discover the white ball’s name, meeting a military expert who served in the Air Force, through photographer Lee Si-woo who did documentary work about the division for a long time.

Radome  Radar + Dome = Radome

After I discovered the ball’s name, the information I could get about it increased a lot. Many questions were solved, and I discovered the diverse usages of radome and the following problems.

When we think about “radar”, we usually imagine a spinning, plate-shaped antenna. Radome is protecting this kind of radar with a sphere of special insulating material. Like gas storage tanks, the sphere-shaped cover can effectively endure not only internal pressure, but it also perfectly endures external pressure. The material of the cover does not deteriorate the radar’s capability, but it protects the radar from rain, snow and wind. The capability of the radar can have detective range and accuracy; these are directly connected with the size of the radar. Therefore, according to the same technological level, a longer diameter makes a better radar. 

Radome is not only used for ground radar, but also used on aircrafts and vessels. Radome is especially essential on fighter planes these days, because whoever will win a war is determined by superior information technology. Radome is usually fitted on the foreheads of normal fighter jets. The AH-64D Apache Longbow, which has horrible destructive power, can fit a radome on its main wing. The early warning system E-3 — the so-called AWACS — performs a role for airborne surveillance, command, and control (C2) functions at an altitude of 10,000 meters, and the core equipment of the E-3 is a 9.14 metre diameter radome on the machine. The E-3’s detective distance is as far as 400 kilometres, and it can analyse 600 targets and trace 200 of them within that area. For reference, the distance from Seoul to Pyongyang is only 230 kilometres. 

I showed the picture of the white ball on a postcard to many people. It was the white ball seen through the rank weeds. People usually recognised it as a water tank, but some people thought the ball was a golf ball. One representative of a gallery said, “So you are doing a project about golf?” Hearing that, this photo looks just like a golf ball on a tee. 

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BFK1403, 2005

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BFK1403, 2005

5. Dismantle the golf ball

“Right now, somebody is watching your every movement.” 

It might seem like something from a horror movie, but during the last moments of the 20th Century, it was world news. Spotlight on the Echelon Project. In the greatest surveillance effort ever established, the US National Security Agency (NSA) had created a global spy system, codename ECHELON, which captured and analysed virtually every phone call, fax, email and telex message sent anywhere in the world. ECHELON was controlled by the NSA and was operated in conjunction with the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) of England, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defence Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand. These organisations are bound together under a secret 1948 agreement, UKUSA, whose terms and text remain under wraps even until today. 

The ECHELON system was fairly simple in its design: position intercept stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fibre-optic communications traffic, and then process this information through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA, including advanced voice recognition and optical character recognition (OCR) programs, and look for code words or phrases (known as the ECHELON “Dictionary”) that would prompt the computers to flag the messages for recording and transcribing for future analysis. Intelligence analysts at each of the respective “listening stations” maintained separate keyword lists for them to analyse any conversation or document flagged by the system, which were then forwarded to the respective intelligence agency headquarters that requested the intercept. Besides the main five countries, there were more countries that helped the US spy system, and Korea was one of them. 

In May 2001, the EU officially reported that ECHELON was “the electronic, international spy system of the US with a confidential attitude.” The report recommended not using phone, fax, or the Internet while sending secret information. Many media have compared the identity of ECHELON to “Big Brother”, from George Orwell’s  1984 . There are US radome bases in England and Australia, Menwith Hill and Pine Gap are their names, and these are observing information all over the world. 

The peace activists of England and Australia have been gathering with their pickets, drawing golf balls on them, and insisting the dismantling of radome bases. I am not sure whether the golf ball of Hwangsaewool field is of the same usage or not. A military expert said, “If it was that important a military facility, it would not be installed on an open field, where people can see or approach it easily,” and his opinion was that the radome was for weather forecasting. However, radomes for weather forecasting are usually much smaller than the Hwangsaewool radome. Moreover, considering that scout planes frequently take off and land at Camp Humphrey and Osan Air Force, which are close to the radome, and that these scout planes have been observed from Okinawa to the North Korea area, it is not very difficult to think about the radome’s true usage. The military expert emphasised, “The most important US base in the Korean peninsula should be Pyeongtaek, because it is the core base of communication security.” So, the golf ball of Hwangsaewool is not so simple. 

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball#BGE0702, 2006

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball#BGE0702, 2006

6. Flexibility

USFK (United States Forces Korea) redeployment was centred around the relocation of the Second Infantry Division and Yongsan Base, south of the Han River, to Pyeongtaek. As the Second Infantry Division relocated from the front line to rear positions, front-line duty had been transferred to the ROK military. Meaning that, the USFK transferred to South Korea its mission of defending the Peninsula against a North Korean attack. Instead, the USFK will be used more broadly to stabilise the Asia-Pacific region. This includes not only North Korea, but China as well. 

The transfer to Pyeongtaek, and away from the North Korean artillery range, is a result of the USFK’s expanded role. Pyeongtaek is equipped with a harbour and an airport. This allows flexibility when deploying troops outside of the Peninsula, and minimises risk in an offensive first strike against North Korea. Also, Pyeongtaek is strategically located to contain or attack China, which has been identified as a potential threat to the US. 

However, military transformation will heighten tensions against the DPRK and China, increasing the likelihood of conflict even without any provocation from South Korea. The USFK base consolidation and realignment to Pyeongtaek presents frightening consequences. In short, it threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula. Peace activists are strongly resisting that “the Asia-Pacific agile force of the USFK that is revealed with the transferring will force the agile force of the ROK Army.” This will enlarge the effect of the ROK-US Mutual Defense Agreement from the Korean Peninsula to the Asia-Pacific region, and it is possible to be the most aggressive war in US history. 

This is why the transferring of the Pyeongtaek US base is not just a problem of the Paengseong-eup villagers. Usually, rigidity implies a negative meaning and flexibility implies a positive meaning, but this “strategic flexibility” is a representative example oh how a bad thing can subvert the usual, good feeling of the word. 

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BGM1703, 2006

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BGM1703, 2006

7. People

Let’s talk about the white ball. People have long lived without showing any interest in the white ball, its size and colour, or its use. They were rather curious about me, because I showed interest in the ball. Farmers here had lost their houses and lands when the Japanese military built an airfield during the colonial period. Not long after the Liberation began to give people hope to live a real life, the war broke out. In 1952, the US soldiers came and crushed their houses and lands. Gone with the houses were the burial grounds of their ancestors. There was no time to save their possessions. Some elders died of shock, some children of the cold and hunger. People dug caves and built cabins in the mountain, and held onto their lives feeding on grass roots and tree peelings. People lived, unable to die. 

Hong Nam-Soon, a 72 year old woman, married into a family in Paengseong at the age of 24. She and her husband poured soil into the sea to make the land and had cared for it since then, “shitting all the way to death for our livelihood.” It was on this land that she raised five children until their marriages. Ms. Hong was sowing black beans on a paddy by the wire fence of the Daechuri US military base when she tearfully said, “I have to taste all these terrible things at this age because of the Americans and their base expansion problems.”

Moon Cha-boon, a 69 year old woman living in Paengseong-eup Dodu 2-ri, was born in Sangju, Kyungbuk, and had drifted here with her husband. Having lived here for 20 years, she considers it hometown. She had worked the land to barely live, and was worried where to go on at her age if their house and land were taken away. 

Cho Chang-Mook, having worked the land for her entire life of 70 years or so, poured out with tears of sorrow at the Peace Service conducted by Catholic Priests’ Assocation for Justice. 

Cho Sun-Rye, an 89 year old woman, lost her house and land to the military base when the US military government expanded it significantly after the Liberation. Bulldozers did not leave any time to move before running over the rice paddies and the fences. Back then, she only trembled and did not know what to say. Now, American planes fly over what used to be her former house. Daechu-ri now is not the real Daechu-ri. This is a fake Daechu-ri that she was pushed into again and again, and forced to settle down in. Her simple wish for the real Daechu-ri was considered treacherous in a land that served the US military. 

Shin Jong-Won, a 44 year old “youth”, was born in Daechu-ri. He has lived simply accepting the gun shots, the black smoke, and everything that came out of the military base because “they were there since his birth.” He worked the land because he liked his hometown and working the land promised to at least feed him well. Now, he was being asked to give up the land and relive the sorrow of his father’s generation who had been ousted from their land. These days, he cannot focus on farming. He is now given the awkward title of the Organising Division Head of the Paengseong Response Committee. 

Kim Wol-soon, a 69 year old, quietly and shyly shared her story. “I was born in Daechuri, but after both parents died, left to different places. I then met a Daechu-ri man as a husband and came back with him. I knew nothing. All I could write was my name. I struggled to write my own address. But, I had a good time with the Daechu-ri people. 13 years ago, my husband died. My children are now living elsewhere. The only thing left to me is Daechu-ri. The sounds of the US airplanes don’t bother me. I have heard them several tens of years. But these days, the smallest sound gives me a heartache and I can’t go to sleep. Where am I going to go if I am pushed out of here? Fifty thousand thoughts come to my mind. My children will tuck me in bed, of course. But, who would want to be a burden on their children? I just want to live quietly, and live to death, with the people who have been the friends of my lifetime. That is my wish.” She prays to God at the service.  People about to be ousted from their means of livelihood have no interest in the white ball. No matter how ugly, they will live with it, and farm with it peacefully, as long as it does not kick them out. 

8. the StrAnge (“Yal-eut-han”) Ball

The word, “Yal-eut-han” is not officially listed in the Korean dictionary. When observing the white ball many times, I kept thinking that it was very hateful and odious. While I figured out what the white ball was used for, and during the process of looking at the lives of the peasants at risk of their residence moving as many as 3 times because of the US army base expansion in Daechu-ri and Dodu-ri, I began to hate the US forces based in Korea. It’s was very nasty. At the same time, the ball became hateful. The white ball soaring in the middle of the rice field was the one helping kill people. 

Was there any possibility for melting this ball to make it a weeding hoe or sewing it to make it clothes? 

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BFM1601, 2005

Noh Suntag, the strAnge ball #BFM1601, 2005

9. Detour

I didn’t take a straight way. The story that I wanted to tell in my pictures was just life.

I remember the day the movie  Save the Green Planet  made me cry. Even though it was a comedy, you could tell the fantasy of the movie reminded you how reality is sour and painful. It was a beautiful and great movie, I thought, because it talked about life itself, which is a big irony. However, not everyone wants to see and know the dark side of life. When I recommended the movie to one of my friends, his reply was that he didn’t want to let the blue movies like  Save the Green Planet  ruin one of his fine days. What an answer! 

Well, I think that my pictures are all about real people facing the brutal and cruel reality like that movie. I love what I’m doing, and I don’t think the themes of my work would take another way. Of course, it is surely necessary to make things on the raw side of reality smooth, however they may be. Is that the reason why I chose to go around? I took a detour, anyway. What I got was not the sorrow of the peasant, but a shining ball. What I got was not the small ball of the dwarf, but the huge ball of those mad for a war. I hope that you can read all the stories carved in this white ball.

As a matter of fact, the white ball doesn’t mean anything to the peasant in Hwangsaewool. I just thought that the white ball symbolises the US army camp and its violence. I also made a big and beautiful ball with the 600 pictures of the faces of the Deachu-ri, Dodu-ri people, which we should never forget. 

When you visit us, you will get a bowl of rice that looks like a white ball. You would be able to eat up the white ball while seeing my works. The white ball killing people should disappear, but the round faces who have been feeding us should be protected. 

One more thing, I hope that you can have a good chance to taste Pyeongtaek rice (I surely can tell you the taste is super-duper!) —  this  is the white ball which has true life inside of it. 

    Artists and Contributors

    Noh Suntag

    Noh Suntag

    Born in 1971, Noh Suntag is one of the most prominent photographers in South Korea, known for his unconventional aesthetic that combines the documentary and the fictional. Noh produces photographs that detail real-life situations related to the division of Korean Peninsula, and how it has permeated the daily lives of the Korean people and distorted the entire society. His projects are usually developed over the course of several years such as his notable series the StrAnge Ball (2004-2007) about the military presence of the US Armed Forces in a small village in South Korea. Noh has exhibited internationally, and his work is a part of museum collections in Korea and Germany. In 2014, he was the winner of the prestigious Korea Artist Prize.