[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]
Jeju Olle and the Korean psyche:
Healing minds and hearts
▲ There are over 400 kilometers of Olle walking trails to explore around the island. Photo courtesy Jeju Olle Trail.
Jeju Olle is helping to heal the minds of Korean people.
A post-conflict, post-colonial society with an ongoing threat of military aggression from the North and an unprecedented rate of development, many local experts and average citizens agree: Korea is in need of healing.
Indicators of a society under stress include Korea’s high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and divorce, accompanied by long working hours, extreme competitiveness in education and elsewhere and a rapid-pace lifestyle with little concept of leisure.
When a staff member at Jeju Olle was asked about the healing effects to be found in walking these trails, she began with, “I’d like to tell you my personal story.”
“I came to Jeju on the advice of a friend who was volunteering for Jeju Olle,” began Lee Su Jin, “at a time when I was physically exhausted, in poor health, and facing a very difficult situation in my life. I walked one trail each day for 10 days in a row,” she continued, “and by the end of that time, I felt truly healed.”
Lee subsequently changed her life, moved to Jeju, and began working with the Jeju Olle team.
“In the beginning of your walk,” she said, “you look at the beautiful scenery and interact with other people. After a while, your thoughts turn inward and you begin contemplating your own life. And finally, your mind empties completely, and you feel refreshed, and whole again.”
“In the end, you meet yourself,” she concluded.
Suh Myung Sook, the visionary who saw both the need for and the possibility of this remarkable trail system at a time (just a few years ago) when local officials were skeptical of Koreans’ interest in such an endeavor, has had much to say about the healing power of Jeju Olle.
Referring to Korea’s recent experience with war and poverty, she has said that Koreans react strongly to minor setbacks, compete with one another for resources and societal position, and “have forgotten how to relax” and handle challenges in a healthy manner.
“Our society is exhausted and stressed,” Suh relayed in a December 2010 conversation, reiterating her belief in a meeting just this week, “with a need for contemplation.”
The notion of healing can seem foreign to Koreans upon questioning. “We don’t typically use this concept” was conveyed by both Kim Jeyon and Han Youngsook, a sentiment echoed by others.
Speak of the “well-being” and “slow” movements which have emerged in the past few years, however, or of the need to relax or feel more comfortable or develop a leisure culture, and everyone agrees.
Korea, like many regions in Asia but perhaps even more so, suffered multiple traumas throughout the 20th century. During the 35-year period of occupation by Japanese armed forces, two successive world wars and numerous regional conflicts swirled around this tiny peninsular nation.
Immediately following Korea’s liberation, the country was thrust into several chaotic years during which it attempted to set up forms of governance never before experienced, resulting in numerous episodes of mass violence on Jeju and throughout the mainland, multiple casualties and wounded survivors, and a country divided. Soon thereafter, the civil war that ultimately involved outside players ensued.
Reeling from the years of this war during which Seoul was flattened three times, many children were orphaned, and poverty and starvation were the norm, Korea entered a period of nation-building which was to include a globally unprecedented rate of economic development. According to Ewha University international studies professor Brendan Howe, this too represents a profound stress.
“When post-conflict nations develop too rapidly,” Howe, a specialist in the area of human security, said at this year’s conference of Korea International Studies Association last month, “it may be good for their economies but it is a great hardship on their psyches.”
Indeed, the types of large-scale mental illness and social problems caused by the trauma that conflict – and colonization, instability, state-sanctioned violence, authoritarian regimes and repression, and extreme poverty – can bring are exhibited in Korea’s skyrocketing rates of suicide, divorce, depression and anxiety.
Intergenerational transmission is a well-acknowledged phenomenon in trauma research, indicating that the wounds borne by a society do not stop with the generation directly affected.
Enter Jeju Olle, and founder Suh.
“At first, the local officials scoffed at my idea,” Suh said in our conversation last year and reiterated this week. “Koreans typically travel like they live – in a rush, consuming but not enjoying, not contemplating. Local government thought that no one would want to travel to Jeju just to walk on nature trails.”
They were wrong. Jeju’s Olle trail system has been consistently voted the favored destination, according to surveys conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization. The estimated number of participants has grown from 3,000 the first year to more than 800,000 in 2010, a rate anticipated to have risen significantly again this year.
Suh’s idea has proven to be exactly what wounded and stressed Koreans needed.
The ultimate goal of trauma resolution, according to scholars of psychology and related fields, is the return of trust, hope, and caring relationships. The healing powers of nature, mindfulness meditation, social relationships as well as solitude, volunteerism, empowerment and community integration are all well documented.
Each of these elements can be found in the Jeju Olle experience.
The message of Jeju Olle, expressed in Suh’s “rules” for walking the trails, provides an apt metaphor for well-being:
Walk slowly. Go at your own pace, enjoying the scenery. Do what you’ve always wanted to do. Interact with the local community, “grasping their willing hands.” All routes are “the best.” Walk lightly on this earth, with the least amount of harm to it – or to others. Talk to strangers along the way. Go green. Follow ancient footpaths. Maintain safety.
It isn’t only the walkers who benefit, however; each person potentially carries this message home to his or her local community.
Jeju Olle is helping to heal the people of Jeju as well. Referring to the island’s “scars,” Suh has suggested that peace is an ultimate and universal value, reflected in these trails.
“Jeju is my ‘hometown,’” said Jeju National University instructor Han Youngsook, who has walked every Jeju Olle trail, some of them repeatedly. “Maybe visitors who walk for many days in a row feel more ‘healing power’ – but after walking an Olle trail, I always feel happy and pleased with myself, stronger and more energetic, refreshed, with a ‘clear mind’ and the recollection of many good memories from my childhood.”
Suh Myung Sook, in recent efforts to integrate Jeju Olle with other trail systems around the world, now dreams of Jeju as the center for Asian eco-tourism.
In war-torn Asia, this may be just what the doctor ordered.
In a brief follow-up interview Suh Myung Sook, founder of Jeju Olle, had this to add:
Regarding Jeju Olle and the healing of Korea’s wounded psyche, what are your thoughts?
I believe that it’s a very accurate and insightful analysis. In fact, from what I’ve heard, Jeju Olle is healing the minds of many. In reality, nature has a therapeutic effect, often called “eco-healing.” Yet, why are so many people experiencing and talking about a healing effect after walking Jeju Olle? It’s because Jeju’s nature is not too big, not too wide, not too vast, yet still very beautiful and lyrical. Standing in front of vast and magnificent forms of nature, people are not only in awe but also daunted and intimidated, reminded of human insignificance. However, Jeju’s soft oreums and wide ocean nurse humans, and nurture their minds. That’s why Jeju Olle is a healing trail.
There seems to have been a recent ‘paradigm shift’ in Korean thinking and being, due in part to Jeju Olle’s influence. Would you share your thoughts on this?
Following liberation, for decades Korea has gone through a compressed modernization process on top of its scars from the war. This has resulted in magnificent achievement and developments, never seen elsewhere in the world, yet it also gave Korea a “hurry hurry” (palli-palli) culture and competitive society. Koreans have even experienced their leisure activities in the same way: the faster the better, and the more the better. However, we recommend that people walk slowly, resting and playing on the Jeju Olle. In that way, people can truly enjoy [internal] conversation with themselves and with nature. That’s why Korean people say Jeju Olle has changed the tour and leisure culture of Korea, from car trips to walking trips, and from a “tour culture filled with dots” in which people move from Point A to Point B, to a “tour culture filled with lines” in which people enjoy the process.
I and many others consider you a visionary, recognizing what Korean people needed when others couldn’t see it — and finding a way to make it a reality. How do you feel about this?
I’m a little shy to be called a visionary. However, in my journalist background, for 20~30 years I lived the most typical Korean life, chasing after success and developing my career at a rapid pace. As a result, I was physically and mentally exhausted. And in order to reflect and to heal myself, I quit my job and left for the Camino de Santiago [trail in Spain]. On the trail, I thought about making a trail in my own hometown, and my wish became reality with much help and support of so many people around me. In the sense that I once felt the pain that all Koreans share, and tried hard to find a solution in the midst of it, it could be a matter of “one who experienced [healing] earlier” or “the one to put [this dream] into action.”