An Interview with Okhwan Yoon : Biking for Peace
Words by Michael Johnstone, shots by Maria-Teresa Bilotta and Zack Cluley
When Okhwan Yoon speaks, the room falls silent. His words are deliberate and carefully considered, with a cadence and rhythm reminiscent of a monk emerging from years of solitude and contemplation. But despite his vast insight and calm demeanor, he is not a spiritual leader—at least not in the conventional sense. So who is this man who is so internationally revered, yet somehow almost entirely unknown in his native country?
In 2001 Okhwan Yoon embarked on a journey around the world—on a bicycle. For the next 10 years he would visit 192 countries, pedaling his way across vast continents, braving extreme temperatures, malaria, starvation, kidnapping, robberies, and multiple car crashes.
It is a journey that has garnered much attention in international media—from YouTube clips taken by those he has met on his journey to local television stations who each covered a fragment of his travels. On a grander scale, Yoon is the subject of an upcoming documentary to be released in 2014 by Slovakian filmmaker Marek Mackovič. While drifting in and out of sleep in a Cyprus airport, Mackovič was approached by Yoon, who asked to have his picture taken in front of a sign with the city’s name on it. Mackovič was fascinated by the story of the Korean man’s bicycle journey around the world, and began to conceive a film about Yoon’s adventures.
During Yoon’s journey he also caught the attention of Kevin Macdonald, a Scottish-born director who was working on a documentary feature entitled Life in a Day. The aim of the project was to produce a film made up of footage of the daily rituals and activities of people simply living their lives, all of which was shot on a single day. Yoon is featured several times in the film, pedaling his way across the globe with a goal that is strikingly similar to that of Macdonald’s project: to see the world with a wider lens, to cobble together a snapshot of the best parts of humanity no matter how mundane or spectacular those moments may be. In Life in a Day, which was released in 2011, Yoon is nine years into his quest. He is exhausted but happy, persisting even after years of isolation and struggle.
Perhaps, Yoon’s persistence comes from a long history of adversity. He recalls a childhood plagued by infirmity. “When I was a child I had many health problems,” he explains. “I got hepatitis, asthma, bronchitis. I had many different sicknesses when I was young. Now I feel no sickness anymore.”
Despite his ailments, cycling had always been an important part of his life. From the time he was six years old, a young Okhwan felt a deep connection to the simplicity of the bicycle. “When I think about bicycles I think about childhood. A bicycle was like a kind of tool to bring me everywhere, from continent to continent. When I cycle I feel like I am flying because you can see a little gap between the pedal and the ground. When I cycled down a mountain or hill I used to pose like I was flying… it was like a ballet on the bicycle. It was representative of my feelings when I cycled around the world.”
For Yoon, cycling amounts to more than a physical experience. He connects it to a greater emotional and spiritual journey that has consumed over a decade of his life. This journey, for Yoon, was more than a feat of determination and endurance. With each push of the pedal he increased his perspective of the world, riding from nation to nation, through towns, villages, and cities. Each encounter brought him closer to an understanding of human connections.
Activism has always been a part of Okwhan Yoon’s life. During the 1980s, when South Korea was still struggling with democracy, the unthinkable happened. “There was a military regime in the 1980s. The university students came out to the streets instead of studying in the classroom, so I joined many of the demonstrations. Many of the police remembered my name so they captured me and put me into a cell and then tortured me in the basement.” Yoon was forced to endure that which most of us couldn’t imagine, yet when he speaks of the incident he offers no hint of bitterness or hatred toward those who caused him such trauma. He only wishes to continue to educate the world about suffering and isolation.
Later, while the world watched in awe as he moved from one nation to the next, back at home there was little to no mention of the lone Korean who was traversing the entire globe on a seatless bicycle. Perhaps this was simply a matter of English media not being picked up by Korean news sources. Or perhaps there were more political motivations for the lack of coverage in Korea about Okwhan Yoon’s quest.
One of the driving forces in his journey that kept Yoon going was the desire to raise awareness about the ongoing division of North and South Korea. He rode without a seat as an example of the discomfort he felt about having his homeland ripped apart by a war nearly forgotten outside the Korean peninsula. In July and August of 2011, Okhwan went on a hunger strike outside London’s Parliament to draw attention to the rift in his homeland. For 41 days he camped outside and ate nothing, becoming dangerously frail and weak. While a few independent media outlets took notice and covered the strike, for the most part the British and Korean press kept quiet about the event, despite petitions being sent to both countries’ governments.
Okhwan found that those who do consider the longstanding division of Korea have often resigned themselves to the status quo. “Many people feel pessimistic about unifying Korea,” Yoon says quietly, “but Germany was divided in two. Many people thought that it would be like that forever. I understand why people are pessimistic. People are focused on taxes and health care. But I’m sure we can see a unified Korea. [Though] it is complicated, we could see a unified Korea tomorrow. We don’t know. We are the same blood. We have the same language, the same ancient history, the same families.”
But Yoon notes that even among his compatriots, the issue of reunification can be dangerous ground to navigate. He cites opposition he has received from fellow South Koreans who outspokenly criticize him for the love and sympathy he feels for the North. “I’d love to support North Korean children, and the poor… but in South Korea it is a very sensitive issue. When I talk about North Korea some people misunderstand. I love North Koreans like I love South Koreans. I want to explain the importance of a Korea without borders. We need more open media between North and South Korea. I think we need to understand each other to heal the Korean peninsula. But we are totally divided by two different political systems. South Koreans need to stand up against this unacceptable situation. It is within the power of citizens to open the border. We can change the Korean peninsula.”
But Yoon believes that this issue of segregated nationalism extends beyond the Koreas. He believes that no one should become comfortable with the idea of borders that divide nations and carve up the world into virtual islands. In the ideal world of Okhwan Yoon, nations do not exist. Borders are meaningless. The very concept of a visa to enter a country should become a narrow-minded antiquity, discarded in favor of a more open world where people are free to explore and engage with other cultures, new perspectives and varying ideas.
There is a scene in Life in a Day where we find Yoon in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. He sits and reflects on a fly he observes, and comments on its similarity to the flies in Korea. This simple connection makes him feel “very emotional”. Yet it is a small connection with large implications. Minute as it may be, his casual observation is brilliantly reflective of his unique perspective of Okwhan Yoon: A man who has traveled the globe far more intimately than any of us likely ever will. A man who, with a simple bicycle, began a quest for unity and understanding. A man who cannot rest until his homeland is reunited as one nation. With each turn of his wheels he sought to understand what it is that divides and conjoins our world, and hopefully to find some way to mend a planet with too many borders.
Life in a Day (2011)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Okwan: One Man, One Bicycle, One Dream (2014)
Directed by Marek Mackovič
Into the Light: The Mission of Okhwan Yoon
by Okhwan Yoon
Available at www.lulu.com