Founding the YKU
By August, 1986, branches of the YKU along with their respective community centers had been founded in L.A., Seattle, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. YKU branches were also founded in New England, Dallas, and Denver, but they were dismantled soon after due to difficulty in management.
The requirements to becoming an official YKU member were strict. There were about 300 members in total. In order to start a new branch, the YKU members had to establish their own community center in the area. In theory, only seven or eight members were needed for a new branch, but it was difficult to run a functioning community center with so few people.
Yoon visited Philadelphia for a few months in the hopes of establishing a branch there. This was difficult, however, due to the small Korean population in Philadelphia. There were only about a thousand Korean immigrants, and not many of them were students. Jang Kwang-seon, who was managing a laundromat, played an important role in organizing the Philadelphia branch. He and Im Yong-cheon had been leading a study group, where a few students met to read Korean newspapers. This became the foundation of the YKU branch. Jang Kwang-seon also persuaded the elders of the community, who were distrustful of Yoon at first. He convinced his two younger brothers to join the YKU as well.
Jang Maeng-dan, Im Yong-cheon, Lee Chong-kook, Shin Kyung-hee, and Cheong Seung-jin began fundraising to build the community center. For these YKU members, fundraising was not about receiving donations but contributing their own earnings, even if it meant taking on side jobs. They collected cans and sold second-hand clothes or flowers. In just half a year, they successfully built a community center.
The situation in New England was even worse than in Philadelphia, as there were scarcely any Korean immigrants. However, there was a bigger population of students. A group of fifteen students were already meeting regularly in a study group before Yoon came along, including Jeong Ki-yeol, Jeong Min, Choi Kwan-ho, Seo Hyuk-kyo, Lee Ji-hoon, Kim Hee-sang, Lee Seong-dan, Ryu Cheong-hae, and Kwon Hyeok-beom.
The members of the study group were already aware of the massacre of Gwangju and they knew they had to do something. When Yoon proposed setting up a YKU branch, the students were quick to organize. Ryu Cheong-hae, who was working as a staff at the University of Massachusetts, recollects the day she met Yoon:
I was shocked. This country boy came out of nowhere, but he had a way with words. It was incredible. He was unlike anyone I’d ever met.
In New York as well, there was already a group of students in a study group. After meeting Yoon, these students joined the YKU. The core members were Kang Wan-mo, Kwon Hyuk-beom, Han Ho-seok, and Kim Nan-won. Kang Wan-mo recollects his meeting with Yoon:
I was a student then. I met Yoon for the first time in New York. I was expecting a well-dressed gentleman. When I met him, he was nothing like my expectations. He looked like some laborer, like maybe he should be handling luggage at a bus station. We kept looking around to see if anyone else would show up. We couldn’t believe that that was Yoon. But he continued to upturn our expectations. He changed us. He was a Jesus that walked among us, the Lenin of Korea. Within a year, we set up a YKU branch in New York.
The members of the YKU studied day and night, from books they bought from Korea and books that were donated by the members. Yoon also joined the study group sessions and participated in the discussions. The discussions were always centered around action – “What can we do?” Yoon was not a theoretician but an activist.
Yoon was not an agitator, and he wasn’t a confident public speaker either. But he was a good story teller. When Yoon took the stage, he stepped up on the podium with hesitation. But soon, he had the audience hanging on his every word. He knew how to open people’s hearts.
The members of the YKU cherished – and continue to cherish – Yoon, because he changed their way of life. Yoon taught the members to lead by action. He emphasized that every member of the YKU should be an example to his peers. Yoon repeated, “If we want to change the world, first, we must change ourselves.”
And what kind of actions would change the world? Yoon spoke of the little things – when you use the last of the toilet paper, put a new roll in its place. When you eat out, stack the dishes in one pile for the waiter. The trivial lifestyle changes that Yoon suggested touched the lives of those who understood the greater philosophy behind such small acts of care and kindness.
But for Yoon, there was a virtue even greater than kindness. Kim Hee-sook recalled Yoon saying, “Kindness isn’t the most important virtue.” He went onto explain, “Look at the Miss Korea competition. Beauty is only the third criteria – goodness is the second, because goodness is a higher virtue than beauty. But truth is the first and most important criteria. Without truth, kindness means nothing. That’s why we must seek to find the truth.”
He then turned to Miss Kim, and said, “What do you think? If you don’t know the truth, you can’t do anything, but if you know the truth and fail to act on it, then you’re committing a crime!”
Yoon continued, “First change your way of life; then change the world. How can someone who fails to change his own life change the life of others? To become a trustworthy person, remember these principles: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Do as you preach. Be responsible and loyal. Lead a diligent and simple life. Be mild-mannered but indignant in the face of injustice. After doing the dishes, clean up the water – even the water on the floor, and water that dripped into places you can’t see. Someone who cleans only what can be seen cannot call himself an activist.”
Yoon lived by these principles. One day, the toilet of the school was clogged with excrement. Yoon volunteered to put his hand into toilet and pull out the excrement.
It was common, even in America, for the elders to be authoritarian. Many were obsessed with hierarchy – some would get angry about the order in which they were greeted. They wanted special privileges according to their age and expected the younger people to run errands.
But Yoon was unaffected by this way of thinking. Shin Kyung-hee, a colleague who later married Yoon, said:
If he [Yoon] had been an authoritarian, it would have been impossible for me to even approach him. I was a rabbit hopping around on a tiger's back. This isn’t to say he wasn’t strict. Yoon was unforgiving, especially during meetings. But he never let anyone lord it over others, including himself. No matter how young a member was, Yoon treated him with respect and kindness. It was easy to become friends with him.”
Yoon also told members to be considerate towards women, people of color, the disabled, and the elderly. Yoon made it a rule to say “Native Americans” instead of “Indians, ” and “African Americans” instead of the N word.
Yoon told his followers to let go of their need for outside approval. He challenged them to free themselves from the need to be publicly recognized.
Through Yoon’s hard work, the YKU established a dozen branches and community centers in two years. As planned, each community center had its own name; for instance, the community center in San Jose was called “Korean Education and Service Center, ” and the one in New York was called “Minkown (civil rights) Center.”
The community centers of each region received recognition as a nonprofit organization and were exempt from taxes. This made it necessary to keep a list of board of directors. The elders of each region were appointed to these positions, and the members of the YKU served as managers, while other members served as volunteers.
If we go first, they will come along
A number of civic associations were fighting against nuclear weapons in America and Europe. Simultaneously, political groups from weaker nations were making their appeals to the international society. Yoon and the YKU, joined in the movement for international peace. “If we go, they will come, too.” – This was Yoon's slogan for international solidarity.
Yoon started the Foundation for International Solidarity Against Wars and Nuclear Weapons. This international organization was a milestone in the history of the Korean-American progressive movement. Although many politicians had gone into exile overseas while Korea was under Japanese control, no one had founded an organization to promote international solidarity. But Yoon recognized the importance of international, cross-cultural solidarity from the start.
In both Seattle and L.A., Yoon witnessed activism from many different groups of people. A number of nations engaged in their own activities for their country's civil rights. Yoon was also impressed by movements dedicated to ending discrimination in America. He said:
After arriving in America, I witnessed activists from third world countries such as the Republic of South Africa, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Palestine, and the Philippines come together. I also met Americans who were allies to these causes. I learned from the labor movement and the blacks’ civil movement in America.
“To change the world is to change the way people think; to change the way people think is to change language.” This principle led Yoon to coin a new Korean term, meaning “International Solidarity Movement.” He defined the movement as “a movement that aims to mutually support activism in other countries in order to achieve human coexistence and co-prosperity.”
Yoon was enthusiastic about this international solidarity movement. He paved the way for Korean activism on a broader scale. First, members of the YKU began to translate documents into English in order to publicize Korean issues. They also translated English files into Korean to distribute them among Korean immigrants. They published about a dozen different types of leaflets, dealing with matters such as nuclear weapons, American forces in Korea, Korea’s division, human rights in Korea, and Korea’s labor movement. These leaflets were distributed during meetings. They also created and distributed buttons and stickers with their slogans.
They also dealt with these issues in depth; for instance, they manufactured a slideshow titled 'Destruction or Survival', dealing with the issue of the American forces in Korea. They dubbed all sorts of Korean audio-visual material with English dubs. They also produced pictures and banners to raise awareness of the Gwangju Uprising.
Yoon believed that a lobby should pressure the U.S. Congress so that they would not back up the military dictatorship in Korea. To create such a lobby, members of the YKU set up the “Korean information agency in America” in Washington D.C. Originally, there hadn’t been a YKU branch in D.C. because there weren’t a lot of Korean immigrants in the area. But other branches contributed donations to create a branch in D.C.
Given the circumstances, the YKU branch in D.C. had to look for a cheap office. The one they could afford was in the red-light district. It was a dangerous place to be at night. Nonetheless it was the first lobby space acquired by a private Korean organization.
The lobbyists visited the U.S. Congress to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of the military regime in Korea. They also held demonstrations.
The YKU began publishing a paper in English, the <Korea Report>, to distribute it to international associations. <Korea Report> dealt with a wide range of relevant issues in Korea, such as the movement for democracy and unification. The YKU also manufactured and propagated <Korea Today>, which was written in English as well.
Members who had been sent to D.C. had to work full-time. As with all YKU work, none of it was for pay – in fact, the YKU relied on donations from its members. Choi Yang-il, Lee Ji-hoon, Lee Jin-sook, Seo Hyuk-kyo, Hong Jeong-hwa, Seo Jae-jung, Yu Jeong-ae, Lee Seong-ok, and Jeong Seung devoted their youth to this task.
In April of 1988 the YKU started a petition demanding the removal of nuclear weapons from Korea. It was a part of the movement for peace and unification in Korea.
Since most people travelled by car at night, the signatures had to be collected during the day. Members went around grocery stores, festivals, university campuses, second hand markets, parks, concert halls, and beaches. Collecting signatures was not easy - a YKU member in L.A., Shim In-bo, was thrown out by the police when he went to a university campus to collect signatures. But he didn’t give up. He stood at the gate of the campus and collected signatures into the night. He alone managed to collect four thousand signatures.
Members of New York started a traditional Korean percussion quartet. They would perform at a park, and then request signatures, explaining the cause of their campaign.
One of the YKU members didn’t speak much English, so he went to a beach and drew pictures in the sand. For instance, he drew missiles and a mushroom cloud, and shouted, “Boom! Boom!” Then he would draw a big X over the nuclear weapons and request signatures.
During the fourteen months between May, 1988 to June, 1989, the YKU managed to get hundreds of thousands of signatures. In July, 1989, they went to the Congress, carrying the rolls of paper wrapped in blue cloth. As they delivered these signatures, they were full of hope for a peaceful, reunified Korea.
Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree
The YKU did not have it easy when it came to funds. They were an active organization, but they only had a handful of offices scattered around America. Managing these offices alone was a significant financial burden. The YKU also had to make room in their budget to participate in international meetings hosted in other countries. Thus, they planned fundraisers appropriate for each season and area, such as the Christmas tree fundraiser.
Winters in the northeast coast of the U.S. were brutal—a continuous series of storms and blizzards. Nonetheless, dozens of YKU members gathered in New York each winter to sell Christmas trees. Starting from November, YKU members kept up their Christmas tree sales for a month. They shivered in the cold and hopped in place trying to raise their body heat, hardly having any time to go to the bathroom. The members who were located in New York were generally in charge of meals. They wanted to ensure that the members who were selling trees in the cold were at least provided a hot meal. They delivered warm soup to each place where the trees were being sold.
One such place was a deli in central Manhattan. The owner of the deli, Kang Byeong-ho, was the treasurer of YKU’s New York branch. He was the one who bought the Christmas trees from wholesalers.
The YKU members delivered each tree that was sold. This was hard work, since the trees were much bigger than a single person. Their work was not over when nighttime came, however. They had to stand shifts 24/7 to make sure the trees would not get stolen. The wind howled until they lost feeling in their ears and noses, but the YKU members could not leave the trees unattended. If anyone tried to steal a tree, they chased them down and took back the tree.
Their efforts paid off. The Christmas tree sales turned a profit of 20, 000 dollars in two years. It made a significant contribution to the miscellaneous maintenance fees the YKU had to pay. A part of the profit was used to support the democracy movement happening in Korea.
The Christmas tree sales alone were nott nearly enough to fund the YKU’s activities, however. The YKU members of each region also started odd fundraising projects to contribute. They sold Korean food such as kimchi and bulgogi at Korean gatherings. They also punched button holes in clothing, assembled electronics, and sorted prints for money. The YKU members of L.A. once even featured as extras on a film as a group.
Though some YKU members were well-off doctors or businessmen, most were working blue collar jobs and living in poverty. Many had been unable to finish college. In spite of this, they did not neglect to pay the YKU membership fees. On top of that, some even skipped meals to scrap together money to donate to the YKU. Naturally, this made them poorer and poorer. Even the members who had started out driving fancy cars had to switch to older, used models. Many lived without a single nice piece of furniture in their house and wore the same few pieces of clothing all year long. All the members were becoming like Yoon Han-bong himself.
This lifestyle garnered the YKU members ridicule. They were called beggars, and some even suggested that they were a part of a cult. The YKU members did not heed this sort of criticism at all. They were too busy with their anti-nuclear meetings and educational events to pay attention to what others thought of them.
The YKU’s most incredible feat of international solidarity was the International Peace March. This march was not just about the reunification of North and South Korea – it was the pinnacle of the international solidarity movement headed by the YKU.
The International Peace March
Compared to other organizations, the YKU was smaller and had fewer resources. Despite this, they gained public recognition through their passion and drive. In May of 1986, the YKU successfully petitioned the city of Berkerly, California to declare “The Day of the People of Gwangju” to commemorate the Gwangju Uprising.
The YKU also organized the “International March for the Peace and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.” This march was a monumental event for the Korean progressive movement. It brought together the movement for Korea’s unification and the movement for international peace.
The Festival of Youth and Students was an international festival that was held in a different city. In July of 1989, the 13th Festival of Youth and Students was held in Pyeongyang, North Korea. North Korea invited special guests – Lim Soo-kyung, a representative of the national council of college students of South Korea, as well as 200 members of the international solidarity organization sent by the YKU. The two organizations, YKU and the national council of college students of South Korea, had each sent representatives without prior consultation. As the South Korean media chose to focus on Lim Soo-kyung's visit, the international coalition led by the YKU did not get much attention at the time. Nonetheless, the participation of the international solidarity organization was significant, given the scale and historical context of the unification movement.
Having established an international network through their participation in anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigns, the YKU decided to use the festival as a platform to raise international awareness on Korean issues. Most Americans at the time were not aware that 40, 000 U.S. troops, along with nuclear weapons, were stationed in South Korea.
Yoon’s plan was to have YKU representatives organize a march for international peace after the Festival of Youth and Students was over. They were to march from Baekdoo Mountain to the DMZ (panmunjeom). At the same time, the YKU members in the U.S. would march from New York to Washington to deliver their petition to the U.S. Congress.
The YKU had to plan carefully to navigate their way around the U.S. government and the North Korean government. The YKU submitted an official inquiry to the U.S. about their visit to North Korea, but set up their base in England to avoid legal regulations. In England, they set up the ‘Preparatory Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, ’ which organized participants for the march.
The preparatory team was based in London, and Hugh Stephans was the leader. The base in Asia was in Manila City, the one in the Pacific was in Melbourne, and the one in North America was in Washington D.C. Of course, the YKU members in the U.S. did most of the planning and Yoon Han-bong oversaw the entire process. It was decided that the fees for participating in the march would be paid by the individual, but that the YKU would pay part of the fees for participants from third world countries.
Yoon did not want the YKU to take sides between the two Koreas. He insisted that the International Peace March be strictly separated from the Festival of Youth and Students. Thus, the YKU refused to co-host their march with the North Korean government.
After months of preparation, they were ready to begin their march. Before they began, Yoon clarified that the march was hosted not by the YKU, but the International Solidarity Committee. He wanted to make it clear that the march was not exclusive to Koreans – the purpose was to invite “outsiders” to join in and take interest. As to whether or not Lim Soo-kyung, the delegate of the National Council of Students, should march with them, Yoon thought it was a decision best left to her. Since the march was for unified Korea rather than North Korea, Yoon reminded YKU members to be on guard and act cautiously.
The International Peace March was backed by an impressive list of sponsors, including the Green Party of Germany, 70 progressive parties from all over the world, and several organizations for peace and women’s rights.
The YKU sent eight members to Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea, in July, 1989. In a press interview, the preparatory committee revealed that there would be a simultaneous peace march in London, England, Manila, Philippines, and Melbourne, Australia in addition to the ones in Pyeongyang and Washington D.C.
Upon arrival at Pyeongyang, the preparatory committee found themselves in conflict with North Korean officials. The committee members insisted on having affiliation with neither North nor South Korea; the International Solidarity Organization, a private organization, would host the entire peace march. But North Korean bureaucrats refused to cooperate. They unilaterally informed the preparatory committee that they would co-host the march, refusing to negotiate.
But Yoon was just as firm and uncompromising. When he received word that North Korea wanted to intervene with the peace march, he commanded the preparatory committee to stand their ground, even at the risk of cancelling the peace march. Though representatives were sent to talk to the North Korean officials, the meeting ended in a deadlock. The YKU members started a sit-in at the Korea Hotel where they were lodged. One member, Yan Young-kook, recollects:
Yoon was, too, very worried. He said, “We are on the brink of a crisis. If we step down, the whole solidarity movement will be ruined. We must block North Korea’s intervention, at any cost.” The whole situation was very tense, and we weren’t getting anywhere by negotiating. That’s why we started the sit-in.
From Baekdoo Mountain to the DMZ
At last, on July 21, the International Peace March began, starting the seven day journey from the top of Baekdoo Mountain to the DMZ. YKU’s traditional percussion quartet led the way. Lee Jong-rok of Seattle, who participated in the march, recalls:
The 13th ' World Festival of Youth and Students' was held in Pyeongyang from July 1st to July 7th, 1989. North Korea was very invested in the success of this event, and had invited youths and students from around the world. That’s when Yoon suggested this almost fantastic idea – to have YKU members march for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
This reckless and absurd plan was solely Yoon’s idea. He planned and executed almost everything himself, keeping many details secret until the last minute. Jeong-min, the captain of the march, and Jeong Ki-yeol, the vice-captain of the march, were let in on the details of the plan only after they were appointed their positions. Every day Yoon gave detailed guidelines to the members – it was almost as if he was there in person. His code of conduct for the YKU during the march went something like this:
- The YKU is responsible for this march. Act accordingly.
- The aim of the march is to lay the foundation for peaceful reunification.
- Do not display the corrupt habits of rich nations in front of North Korean citizens.
- Show respect towards North Koreans.
- Stay with the crowd. Don’t act alone.
- Don’t take photos privately. The only recording allowed is the official video.
- YKU members must bring up the rear. Don’t lead the march.
- YKU members must receive permission from the general manager before having contact with the media.
- Don’t approach Lim Soo-kyung unnecessarily.
After the World Festival of Youth and Students, Jeong Gi-yeol diligently recruited foreigner participants for the march. On July 20, the day the march began, 400 people from 30 countries were present.
There were a total of 270 participants in all - 85 foreign participants from 30 countries, 113 Korean immigrants, and 70 North Koreans. Lim Soo-kyung and Moon Kyi-hyun, a priest, also participated.
The North Korean citizens who witnessed the march were overwhelmingly welcoming and supportive. At every alley that the YKU marched into, the residents lined the streets to wave at them and chant for reunification. Everyone was in tears.
The participants of the march were touched by the encouragement from the North Korean citizens. Though it was a hot and humid monsoon season, the participants cried out tirelessly for peace and reunification. They cried so much that they hardly had tears left to shed. One participant and member of the YKU New York branch, Kim Gap-song, recalls:
“This was the biggest incident since the Korean War. When the news came on the TV, a bell would ring, and the announcement always started with news about Kim Il-sung. But during the march, there was none of that. The bell would ring, and the news started by covering the march. From the point of view of the North Korean government, the whole event must have been frightening. They try so hard to obscure what life is like for their citizens, and now there was a march witnessing all of it. I cried ‘til my tearducts were dry. Every new person we met along the way was overcome with tears.”
The march from Baekdoo Mountain to Panmunjeom was quite sensational. Just as South Korea's morning news started with a speech from President Cheon Doo-hwan, North Korea's news started with a segment on Premier Kim Il-sung. But during the march, news about Kim Il-sung was moved back so that the march could be covered first. Lim Soo-kyung appeared in the news wearing jeans – this was shocking to North Koreans. Even North Korean officers had to admit that the march was the biggest event since the Korean War.
The International Peace March organized by the YKU could be seen as the pinnacle of Yoon Han-bong’s achievement in the Korean immigrant movement. He managed to orchestrate an event calling for reunification without the aid of the North Korean government or the South Korean government – something that had never been done before, and something that has never been done since.
From New York to Washington
At the same time as the march in North Korea, the march in America began, led by Han Ho-seok. This was a much smaller march of only 40 participants. Many Americans were indifferent, and some were hostile – they shouted “Go back to your own country!” Nonetheless, the march continued, carrying their petition with 110, 000 signatures.
Yoon attended neither the march in North Korea nor the march in the U.S. in person. Instead, he stayed in the YKU community center in New York and managed both marches from afar. He barely slept during that week.
North Korea's march arrived at Panmunjeom on July 27, and the U.S. march arrived in Washington D.C. on the same day. In North Korea, the participants founded the International Solidarity Committee for Peace & Reunification of Korea, and committed to marching every two years. In the U.S., the participants delivered the petition to the U.S. congress. They also opened a contest to promote the end of war in Korea. The contest received international media coverage.
When the march in North Korea arrived at Panmunjeom, something unexpected happened. After the closing ceremony, the participants of the march attempted to go through the Panmunjeom and across the border. When they were stopped, they immediately started a hunger strike. This hunger strike had not been planned in advance, but it was impossible to convince the participants to give up. A total of 65 people, including 10 foreigners, Lim Soo-kyoung, and the Catholic Priest Mun Kyu-hyun who accompanied Lim Soo-kyoung held a 6 day hunger strike.
When the YKU heard of this, the 10 YKU members began a hunger strike as well for 4 days. In the end, Lim Soo-kyoung and Priest Moon Kyu-hyun returned to South Korea by crossing the border, and served time in jail as a result.
The voice of liberation
“Flow, my tears, all my sorrow, my humiliation and indignity”
October 1991, in an auditorium in Northern Ireland, a concert began with this mournful solo. The performance was hosted by the Irish Republic Army (IRA). The armed British troops were on guard right outside the hall. Jeong Seung-jin, a member of the New York YKU branch and the leading performer, was singing on stage. Behind him, there was a slideshow of the photos taken during the Gwangju Uprising. The Irish audience watched, captivated and moved.
Then a traditional Korean skit[주 1] began, changing the atmosphere entirely. The sense of humor in the satirical representation of the United States made the audience burst into laughter. Anti-nuclear slogans and anti-war slogans, followed by “Yankee go home” were met with a hearty “Bravo!” from the crowd. The Irish people, who had suffered over 20 years of civil war, were sympathetic to the plight of the Korean people. Everyone clapped along to the percussionist quartet.
Since the peace march in 1989, the YKU had committed to having a march every two years. In 1991, as a part of the biannual peace march, they began their tour of Europe. This tour was led by a small committee within the YKU dedicated to sharing Korean culture – there were only ten members in total. The leaders of the committee, Lee Sung-ok and Cheong Seung-eun, planned the European tour carefully. With support from many European groups, they were able to perform 17 times in 6 countries in just 50 days. They also went to Sydney and Melbourne in Australia and performed four times.
Once, after a performance in Paris, a staff member from the Labor Press of North Korea came by and gave them some kimchi. On principle, the YKU were not to receive any support from North Koreans during their tour. Hong Se-wha, a political exile who was visiting the YKU committee advised them to take the kimchi – it was a small gift, after all, not a political move. The YKU members were not sure what they should do. One member, Choi Yong-tak recalled:
We decided to return the kimchi, after a discussion. But I must now confess that we had a little taste first. We hadn’t had kimchi for weeks.
Choi Yong-tak met Yoon in 1990:
About two months later, when I became a member of the YKU, I met Yoon in New York for the first time. I was so drawn to him. To me, Yoon was a man like Ho Chi-minh. He was an incarnation of revolution. Every instant of his life was tied in with the destiny of our country. He was brilliant. Even now, my heart beats faster when I think of him.
In 1990, Yoon Han-bong was 42 years old. He had been in exile for 10 years. Despite opposition and suppression from so many different political figures, Yoon Han-bong was successfully maintaining an organization of 200 to 300 members. In Gwangju, he had been a beloved comrade, and in the U.S., he was a respected leader. This was, in a sense, the highest point of his life.
Despite his active life in the U.S., Yoon always longed for Korea. He had kept to the promises he had made to himself when he entered the U.S. He did not sleep in a bed, and he would not remove his belt even while sleeping. Yoon did not allow himself luxuries. He still smoked crouching in a corner, thinking about his comrades in the democracy movement.
The new way
Ten years after the beginning of the YKU, Yoon proposed a drastic change of direction for the organization. In 1992, the YKU held a contest to promote activism among Korean immigrants. One hundred and fifty members participated in the contest. During the contest, Yoon reported the change of direction.
Gone are the days of revolution. North Korea joining the UN is an admission that maintaining the status quo has become more urgent than the goal of unifying Korea. Unification is now a long-term task, and accordingly, we must turn our focus to the promotion of peaceful disarmament instead.
The wall in Berlin had fallen, and the Cold War era was over. The socialist countries of Europe had collapsed. The days of revolution were gone. Up to this point, the YKU had focused on unification; now Yoon urged them to redirect their energy to advocating for the rights of Koreans in the U.S.
We’re fighting in the long run now. We need to incorporate activism into our everyday life. All members should think of long term goals and work on them daily.
The businessman should aim for success. The tradesman should aim to specialize. He who gave up his studies to join the movement should return to school. He who left his family for the sake of the movement should return to his family. Meanwhile, Yoon added, keep alive your passion for justice and truth.
Yoon argued that returning to their daily lives, rebuilding connections, and advocating for the rights of Korean immigrants was the way to make their movement sustainable. YKU members returned to school, resumed their studies, and dedicated time to looking after themselves and their health.
Gang Wan-mo was a key figure of the YKU. He returned to University and eventually became an international lawyer. He said:
This change in direction opened up new opportunities for many members. There were, of course, some who were angry. They thought the new way was a betrayal. They thought Yoon was abandoning the movement. But as I saw it, the new way wasn’t the end of a movement – it was the beginning of a new one.
Coming back home
When Kim Young-sam was elected as president, returning to Korea became a possibility for Yoon. Kim Young-sam was an important political figure who had fought alongside Kim Dae-jung for establishing democracy in Korea. It seemed likely that he would be open to the possibility of allowing Yoon to return.
Yoon wished to return to Korea to see his mother, but there was not much he could do. Around that time, several comrades in Gwangju, such as Hwang Kwang-woo, started to campaign for Yoon’s return. Hwang and his colleagues collected signatures. Through their diligence and drive, they were able to submit 70, 000 signatures to the National Assembly.
On May 12, 1993, Yoon was at the YKU community center in L.A. As always, his day had been busy. In the afternoon, he received a phone call from a newspaper in Korea. He listened in shock as the voice on the other end of the line told him that President Kim had permitted Yoon’s return to Korea.
Yoon felt stunned. How could he have expected for something so big to happen so suddenly? Immediately, calls poured in from news organizations, friends, and family.
Yoon did not have time to discuss the possibility of moving back to Korea with all branches of the YKU. He asked the branches to discuss the matter among themselves and let him know the consensus by fax. He thought it would be best to temporarily return to Gwangju – after his visit, he would be able to make a more permanent decision.
Yoon went out to the backyard of the school. He looked over the garden – the lettuce, cucumber, pumpkin, spinach, leeks, chives, balsamina, and rose moss. In times of distress, Yoon had found peace in looking after the plants in the yard. Crouching in silence, he had weeded, watered, and nurtured them. He had made supports for peppers and webs for the cucumber and pumpkin vines to climb on. With him gone, who would look after the flowers and vegetables?
On the morning of May 19, 1993, Yoon set off to the airport, trying to hide his tears. Dr. Choi Jin-hwan and Gang Wan-mo accompanied him to Gwangju. Members who had come to see him off waved a tearful goodbye. Yoon recalled:
Trying to hide tears, I went through airport security. Whenever I’d seen off my guests at the airport, I hoped the day would come when I would also get to return to Korea. I was envious of them as they walked through the gates and into security – and now, I was finally passing through the same gate myself.
Yoon had spent 12 years in exile – he had come to America 34 years old and now he was a middle aged man, 46 years old. On the plane, Yoon broke down in tears. “After the plane took off, so many faces flickered in my memory. It took me at least a couple hours to return to reality. I was returning to my beloved homeland. I felt overwhelmed.”
Continue reading in: A leader in the Korean democratization movement
- This is a type of theater where there is active communication between the actors and the audience, who sit in a circle on the ground