When Yoon fled from Gwangju, where did he go? What was his life as a refugee like? It’s hard to say, because he left no records around this time, not even a notebook of scribbles. We can only piece his life together from Park Hyo-seon’s work. Park Hyo-seon was a playwright, a refugee alongside Yoon. Their lives were as such:
A disciplined life.
Get up at 5 a.m.
A sincere life.
At intervals when the family sleeps
use the toilet.
A quick bowel movement, and then
wash my face and brush my teeth.
Wipe down the floor
and tidy the room.
Read the newspaper quickly
and put it back in its place.
A disciplined life.
Lock the gate all the time.
Do not turn the light on at night.
Read books under sunlight.
Sleep under moonlight.
Do some household chores.
A compact life.
For the sake of the movement.
For the victory of the movement.
Jeong Yong-hwa was Yoon’s close comrade. Jeong took care of Yoon while Yoon was in exile, tending to every detail. One day, Jeong visited Yoon without warning.
“You have to go down to Masan harbor right now. Board the ship there. We don’t have time. It is dangerous for you to get on the bus by yourself. Have Eun-kyung accompany you."
Eun-kyung, a devoted minister, was in charge of putting Yoon in contact with others. As promised, she came in an hour. Yoon, who had spent all his time shut up in his room, looked pale and sickly. With Eun-kyung pretending to be Yoon’s sister, the two of them got on the bus to Masan.
Two men were waiting for them in Masan – Jung Chan-dae and Choi Dong-hyun, an engineer and a navigator on a cargo ship called the Leopard. They took on the daring task of providing Yoon a secret passage out of Korea. Upon Yoon’s arrival, all of them went to an inn to review the plans for the smuggling operation.
According to Jung Chan-dae and Choi Dong-hyun, the ship was a merchant vessel of 35 thousand tons and a crew of 27 sailors. On April 30th, it was scheduled to leave the harbor in ballast. In Australia, the ship would pick up aluminum, and then sail towards America. In total, a 40 day trip.
There were three major hurdles. First, Yoon had to steal into the cargo. Second, he had to pass through customs in Australia. Third, he also had to pass through customs in America.
They reviewed the plan:
To get on the boat: Yoon dresses like a sailor. Jung Chan-dae and Choi Dong-hyun put their arms around him, and the three of them stagger through the gates pretending to be drunk.
To get off the boat: Someone has promised to help when the boat reaches its destination. He’ll get on the ship, pretending to be a minister. He’ll identify himself through code: He’ll ask Jung Chan-dae, “What flower do you like?” Jung Chan-dae will reply, “I like garden balsams. You?” The helper will reply, “I like azaleas.” If all goes according to plan, Jung Chan-dae will deliver Yoon to the helper.
Yoon successfully boarded the Leopard the day before the ship set sail and hid in a toilet stall. On the day the Leopard left the harbor, Jung Chan-dae and Choi Dong-hyun brought Yoon some money and emergency provisions – dried anchovies, dried shrimps, bread, jam, a towel, and some toothpaste. Later, in the evening, Choi Dong-hyun came down to inform Yoon that the ship had just left the territorial waters of Korea. He was really, truly leaving behind his homeland. Yoon leaned against the wall and wept himself to sleep. “Martyrs of the Gwangju Uprising, may you forgive me for fleeing. Please guide me so that one day I might return and finish the work you left behind.”
For 35 days, Yoon hid in the toilet stall of the patient’s room. Since there were no patients on board, no one used the bathroom there, but Yoon hung an “out of order” sign on the door just in case. The toilet stall shared a wall with the corridor where the sailors slept, so he had to be extremely careful not to make any sound.
The men who were helping Yoon leave the country offered to sneak in food for him, but Yoon thought this was too big a risk. During the trip, he only ate the food he had brought with him. Every day, he allowed himself to eat three pine nuts, one dried anchovy, one dried shrimp, and one slice of bread with some jelly.
But worse than the starvation was the heat. The ship had to pass over the equator twice, once when it sailed from Korea to Australia and once again when it sailed from Australia to America. The walled-in, under-ventilated toilet stall was like an oven. The murderous heat, reaching over 50 degrees Celsius, caused Yoon’s skin to bubble over with boils.
The Leopard arrived in America two days earlier than expected. Minister Harvey,[주 1] in Seattle, alarmed to hear from the manager of the Leopard that the ship would dock in just a few hours. He quickly contacted Elder Kim Dong-geun and his wife, Kim Jin-sook.
Mrs. Kim, who received the news from Harvey, hurried to board on the ship, accompanying an American minister. She was clever – she delivered a note to all sailors, inviting them to come have dinner at her house at any time. Jung Chan-dae and Choi Dong-hyun, who received the note with her address on it, were able to take Yoon to her house. When Yoon arrived at Kim's house, he was but a skeleton.
Starting his new life in America, Yoon vowed not to forget the sacrifices others had made in Gwangju.
I’ll never forget those who fell in Gwangju. I’ll live a life that honors their sacrifice. I’ll continue the fight, so that one day I’ll be able to return home without shame. I’ll continue the fight, so that one day I’ll be able to forgive myself for running away.
Yoon Han-bong’s nickname was “Habsoo.” Literally, it means the convergence of water, and the term is used in the Korean countryside to refer to a mix of dung and urine, used as fertilizer in the fields. Yoon wanted to become a fertilizer that would help sprout a more just world.
Yoon had personal rules for his own life: First, I will not use English.[주 2] Second, I will not shower. Third, I will not sleep in a bed.[주 3] Fourth, I will not loosen my belt, even while sleeping. As I did in Korea, I will also continue to live without accumulating personal property.
The only pleasure that he permitted himself was smoking. From the moment he was up, Yoon smoked incessantly. He attempted to quit several times because the cigarettes caused him breathing problems, but he was unsuccessful. Even this small indulgence he found utterly distasteful.
- Pastor Kang Shin-seok and Elder Jo A-ra in Gwangju contacted Reverend Harvey in Washington D.C. through Lee Hak-in and Kim Yong-seok. Reverend Harvey was the director of the North American Coalition for Human Rights in Korea. Reverend Harvey, with the cooperation of Senator Edward Kennedy, aided Yoon’s passage into the U.S.
- According to members of YKU, Yoon had no problem understanding English when he was working with activists from different countries. It seems likely that he decided not to use English in order to avoid losing touch with his Korean roots.
- Showering and sleeping in a bed are American customs, which Yoon did not want to follow. By “not loosening his belt”, he was proclaiming that he would maintain alert even while sleeping. He was constantly reminding himself that he owed a debt to the martyrs of the Gwangju Uprising.