Breathing easierILSAN Night is falling and as the sun sets, it slow dances across Ilsan Lake in this suburb north of Seoul. In the twilight stillness, joggers and walkers enjoy the park that surrounds the lake. It's a common sight at the park, except for the 30 motionless people in a part of the park across the street from the Carrefour department store.
Every day a community of Falun Gong practitioners gathers here at 7 p.m. Falun Gong, which originated in China, is, at its simplest form, a method of refining the body and mind through exercises and meditation.
The first few people to arrive help Lee Young-sub, who brought the movement to Korea in 1996, string a banner between two trees. As more people arrive, they start lining up in rows. On most days, Mr. Lee slides a cassette into a speaker system. Today, Mr. Lee, who speaks a little Chinese, takes them through the Falun Gong exercises himself. Hands and arms move with slow grace to the sound of Chinese music as each member starts the sect's five basic exercises.
The first exercise is called "Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands." Each person raises one hand to the sky and cups the other hand to his chest while breathing deeply. When the men raise their right hand, the women raise their left hand, in accordance with ancient beliefs about yin and yang. The movements are somewhat similar to tai chi chuan.
In China, many Falun Gong practitioners have been forced to do their exercises in secret since the Chinese government banned the movement. Beijing calls Falun Gong a cult that threatens social stability and spreads superstitious thinking. There have been reports in China of Falun Gong adherents being jailed and tortured.
The reasons for joining a Falun Gong group vary. Some say the excercises, which supposedly purify the body, help heal illness. "I have heard stories about healings that would amaze you," Mr. Lee says, sharing stories of cancer patients and paralytics who got well.
Others say Falun Gong's philosophy of honesty, benevolence and forbearance nurtures good citizens, and thus is good for the nation. "We don't have a strong organization," says Brandon Park, who is visiting from the United States. He insists the group is not a cult. "We don't have any membership system, and people are free to come and go as they want."
The spiritual movement has spread internationally, as has the scope of the Chinese government's crackdown. The Washington Post reported this month that Beijing has tried to block Falun Gong's attempts to advertise in Chinese-language newspapers in the United States. Many U.S. adherents do their exercises in public, sometimes in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Mr. Lee first encountered Falun Gong when he was in Beijing on a business trip in 1995. He saw a group of people exercising. Intrigued, he joined them right then and there. "I thought, 'This is it, this is what I have been looking for all my life,'" he says.
After returning to Korea in 1997, he continued his exercises alone, by the lake. People would pass and stop to ask him, "What are you doing?" He would talk about Falun Gong, emphasizing his beliefs in its benefits. Slowly, people started joining him. "Everyone here began that way," he says, gesturing at the people standing before him. There are now, unofficially, some 3,000 followers in Korea.
Ilsan is only one of some 50 places nationwide where members gather. Several seniors, including a 92-year old man, meet daily at Jongmyo Park in downtown Seoul during the late afternoon. "Rain or snow, we're here," said Lee Chun-ok, a 66-year-old woman who helped start the Jongmyo gathering.
Office workers and others meet downtown, across the street from Sinsegae Department Store and right next to roaring traffic, also during the late afternoon. Other groups meet as early as 5:30 a.m. Members also meet once a week to study texts in Seoul.
On April 13, about 500 followers met in Daegu for a conference. "We shared our common experiences and then went out in public to spread the movement," Brandon Park said.
Travelers like Mr. Park often join the meetings. He found out about Falun Gong after a devastating stomach illness. He says he recovered from his malady by practicing at Falun Gong, and regularly shares his story at conferences in the United States.
His story may be strange, but it is not unique. Lee Cheon-suk, 45, never weighed more than 45 kilograms. In her mid-30s, she stopped menstruating and started vomiting frequently. She says that about 18 months ago, when she started Falun Gong, her problems stopped.
Park Chang-geon, 43, has tuberculosis, and started doing Falun Gong as a last resort to alleviate the related pain. At first, he says, his body felt strange, as if heat was leaving his extremities. But within a week, he threw out his pain medicine. Mr. Park has copies of his X-rays to show skeptics. "Later, I met a doctor who told me I shouldn't be this healthy," he says. The doctor, who also had tuberculosis, has since started doing Falun Gong.
Ethnic Chinese residing here rarely join the groups. Last winter, an ethnic Korean couple who live in China came to Korea to celebrate a family wedding. The couple, who asked that their name be withheld, did the exercises by themselves. But the wife heard of the group that meets by the lake.
She looked for them for three nights, and finally found them. She says, "I don't have any fears about returning to China. For now, there are no words to express my joy that I can practice freely."
All winter, when most of the people were bundled up in jackets, scarves, hats and gloves, the wife would show up with her hands bare. "The Chinese government cannot change my heart," she says.
The group at Ilsan breaks out of formation to get mats for their sitting exercises. They regroup, slip off their shoes and sit cross-legged. They close their eyes as Mr. Lee turns on a cassette tape conducive to meditation.
More joggers pass and the sun sets. "At first, it's embarrassing to do this in public," one person says later. "But it's all part of letting go and focusing."
As the founder of Falun Gong in Korea, Mr. Lee says he has been blacklisted by the Chinese government. "I was in Hong Kong in the late '90s, reading a newspaper, when I saw my name on a list of Falun Gong adherents," he says. "My friends and I knew it was only a matter of time."
He points out that the blacklist applies to him and other founding members, not to most practitioners. He hasn't tried to return to China since, and says the movement is weakening there. "If people don't practice, the movement will die. I may not be able to return to China, but I have no regrets."
by Joe Yong-hee