As I crouched on the concrete slabs ringing Parliament Square outside the Mother of Parliaments, it was difficult to truly comprehend the scale of Okhwan Yoon’s journey, as the South Korean lay confined to his tent, motionless and gaunt.
“I have cycled through 191 of the world’s nations since 2001 on my quest for peace. Even as a child I would contemplate what law beyond the mountains. Travelling is the master of knowledge and allows me to deepen my understanding of philosophy,” said Yoon.
Yoon is a law graduate and philosopher whose thirst for freedom has taken him on a journey few can match. From being arrested in Seoul by the repressive Chun Doo Hwan regime in 1984, to near-fatal road accidents and recovery from debilitating illness, Yoon displays a strength of resolve that dwarfs his slight frame. His 10-year mission for peace around the world has left him lying on the cold paving of Parliament Square determined to precipitate the opening of the militarised 38th Parallel separating North and South Korea.
The border has been shut since the Korean Civil War ended in 1953, and anyone attempting to flee from North to South risks imprisonment and execution, while those remaining must be content with what is described as the world’s largest prison camp. The regime is commonly cited as the worst human rights violator on the planet, but little international attention is given to the people’s plight there; Yoon wants to change that.
I met Yoon on day 31 of his hunger strike for the North Korean people, and his ordeal was evident in his weary movement, drawn face and sallow complexion. Having already survived muggings, car accidents and numerous bouts of malaria on his worldwide tour, it would be easy to forgive Yoon for wanting a rest, but 10 years on he is camped on the doorsteps of democracy demanding international attention for what he says is a “human tragedy.” I asked why he had felt compelled to forgo food for the North Korean people.
“This is my humble dedication for North Korea, as I think after 60 years of shame it is now time to talk. How can we imagine over 60 years of such a situation? But we have to forgive, learn, urge and demand,” he said.
It was political theorist Hannah Arendt who said: ‘of all the specific liberties freedom of movement is historically the oldest and most elementary…limitation of freedom of movement has from time immemorial been the precondition for enslavement.’ After travelling to places beyond most people’s wildest dreams, Yoon had felt this more than most, and was troubled by the one place his two wheels could not take him. It seemed a personal as much as a humanitarian quest.
“North Korea is my country. I was born in the South, but it is also my country; we are one. This is not only a Korean issue, as we are all homo sapiens,” he said.
As Yoon lay motionless, cocooned in his sleeping bag, surrounded by free newspapers and the consuming trundle of double-decker buses, it would be easy to feel that his protest was falling on deaf ears. Since his hunger strike began there has been little response from official media outlets, either in South Korea or the UK, with only a handful of independent supporters following events. I asked if this was disheartening for him.
“During my travels I constantly wondered why we are so uncivilised and unenlightened. I encountered so much torture, starvation and genocide, but it strengthened me. If there is no sunshine we will all freeze. We are all passengers on a tiny planet, this station we call planet earth. Life is short and we stay here for a short time, but we must all live together despite our differences,” said Yoon.
As he began to recount his innermost thoughts, it was clear Yoon had a depth of character that allowed for great wonder at humanity, but also anguish at the pain he saw around him.
“In the beginning I was travelling for peace, but it became an enquiry with a universal theme. Where am I going? What am I doing? What is the quality of love and literature? What makes us human? Everything combined to push me towards this humble dedication to the people of North Korea,” he said. “In the bible it says we should leave our homeland to experience life; this is a basic fact of freedom that North Koreans cannot enjoy.”
For its demonstration of human endurance, a month-long hunger strike is sure to provoke no small amount of awe in people, but it is also a controversial decision. Some might feel it is a vain gesture that serves personal rather than altruistic ends, but Yoon insists this is the least he could do for the people of North Korea.
“Westminster is widely regarded as the root of democracy in the modern world and it is also a truly international city, like few others. From here I can reach people all over the world and reach North Korea so the people know we are with them,” Yoon said. “This is my humble dedication to the people of North Korea and it is the strongest campaign for them. I can help provide an opportunity for North Korea to open up to the world. We must demand the opening of the border immediately to avert a crisis. Those in power in North Korea will face a heavy judgement, one day,” he warned.
Only time will tell whether Yoon’s one-man hunger strike will move the politicians to action in Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing and Washington, but it is certainly a timely reminder of the true spirit behind John Stuart Mill’s quip that “one person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.” As I was due to depart Yoon wanted to leave us with one last thought.
“I realise my task is not easy, but we are all family on this planet, and we must develop peace, hand-in-hand. Philosopher Spinoza said ‘even if the end of the world were to come tomorrow, I will plant an apple tree.’”
Yoon’s words had been heartfelt and powerful, but as I glanced above him at the towering flagpoles of Parliament Square, flags whipped and herded by the rush-hour traffic, I wondered if the stark plight of North Korea would ever be heard above the relentless slog that is inner-city life.
For more information or to support Okhwan Yoon in his protest please visit his website here.