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Korean Edition of Pilgrim Stories: The Rise of Korean Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago
The Korean language edition of my book Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago (UC Press, 1998) reached bookstores in early 2019. Why in Korean? In this article I overview the remarkable 21st C rise in the number of South Korean pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago.
Korean Edition of Pilgrim Stories:
The Rise of Korean Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago
By Nancy L. Frey, PhD
19 March 2019 ***
***As of 10 Oct 2019, this is a work in progress that I am uploading now that I was unable to finish in March 2019 due to the commencement of my On Foot in Spain tour season. I do want to make available this material for those interested but please keep in mind that it is an unfinished, in progress piece ! I hope to finish in early 2020. ***
In late 2017 UC Press, the publisher of my 1998 book Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago, informed me that a South Korean publisher was interested in translating my book into Korean. Was I interested? Yes, of course. The rise of the presence of South Koreans on the Camino since I researched my book in the 1990s has been notable and remarkable. I hoped to write an introduction to the Korean-language edition connecting with this new group of ever- burgeoning 21st pilgrims but alas this did not occur. With a publication date of Nov of 2018 by Slow & Steady Publishing Co., the Korean-language version of Pilgrim Stories became a reality. The picture above shows the cover of the Korean-language version. This article addresses some of what I might have written in an introduction to the Korean edition.
Media: The Power of Books and TV Reality Shows
One of the lectures that I give on our 11-day Camino de Santiago tour describes the rise of the pilgrimage in the 20th C. One of the many notable changes that have occurred since I did my research in the 1990s is the growth of the international community attracted to the Camino de Santiago. In the early years of the pilgrimage’s revival in the mid- to late-20th C pilgrims primarily hailed from Europe with Spain being the most well-represented. By 1993 there was an established Pilgrim's Office in Santiago de Compostela (on the Rua do Vilar, 1) to manage the ever-increasing number of pilgrims requesting the historically based pilgrim's certificate, the Compostela. In my book Pilgrim Stories I report that in 1983, in the statistics kept by the Archicofradia of the Cathedral, pilgrims hailed from 8 European countries. By 1994 this number increased to 33 and in 1996 pilgrims from 63 countries collected Compostela certificates (always with Spain in the majority). 2 (Other countries have also had best-selling authors influence pilgrim numbers, eg, Germany, but that's beyond the scope of this article as well as the significant power of "film-induced tourism" most notably Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez's 2010 movie The Way to attract pilgrims to Santiago3).
Word of mouth of former pilgrims explains the growth in the pilgrimage's popularity in part as well as articles here and there in travel magazines. But a major factor was the power of the written word by an international author: Brazilian spiritual, self-help author Paolo Coelho. He wrote two back-to-back international bestsellers about adventure and self discovery set in Spain and based on his own 1986 journey along the Camino de Santiago: In 1987 O diario de um mago (later in English as The Pilgrimage, A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom in 1995) appeared in bookstores and in 1988 O alquimista (in English in 1993 as The Alchemist), the allegorical story of Andalusian Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago who journeys on a quest to the Egypt only to discover that the answers lie where he least expected them. The Alchemist, translated into 56 languages, is the most translated book in the world by a living author! 4
The Korean editions of Coelho's books appeared in 2002 (see photo right- The Alchemist in Korean) and 2011 (The Pilgrimage) and were highly popular, especially the former that sold more than 2 million copies. Coelho used the Camino de Santiago as the setting for his esoteric, spiritual journey that suggests that on a journey one finds truth through simplicity. This message inspired (and continues to inspire) people worldwide to seek out the Camino de Santiago as a path to potential inner understanding and soulful reflections. He also indicates that the Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France which is one of the factors that has led to the odd 20th and 21st C strongly held belief that there is something called the "whole Camino" meaning the roughly 800-km section that separates the France-Spain border (where St Jean Pied de Port is situated) to Santiago de Compostela. Most Korean pilgrims continue this idea intentionally make an effort to start in St Jean Pied de Port which wouldn't be a problem if the majority weren't starting in January and February when the pass over the mountains that separates St Jean from the first Spanish village of Roncesvalles is typically closed with snow. It is dangerous and people die every year crossing this pass in the snow. Since 2014 the government of Navarra Spain has closed the pass for security measures from 1 November until 31 March. [note]
In addition to the major publicity campaigns that the Galician government engaged in to sell the Camino, Galicia and Santiago as a major destination another international figure, USA actress and writer Shirley Maclaine walked the Camino on her own spiritual quest (inspired in part by Coelho) in 1994. Maclaine also subsequently published a best selling book in 2000 The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. Coelho's book and McClaine's highly publicized journey (as well as other less well-known published pilgrim accounts) helped put the Camino in the limelight and set into motion pilgrims coming from the other side of the Atlantic. When I did my research in 1994-1995 it was common to see Brazilian pilgrims as well as increasingly non-European pilgrims. But still the vast majority were Spanish and European primarily hailing from Germany, France, Italy and Portugal. It was not common to see Asian pilgrims on the Camino in the 1990s though I remember quite well the letter to the editor in the national daily newspaper El Pais by a disappointed Japanese pilgrim denied the Compostela Certificate in 1994 because he was not Christian.4 Times have certainly changed in the PIlgrim's Office and this would never occur today because the norms regarding the receipt of the certificate have evolved as has the Camino (but that's material for another article).
The Korean media story follows a similar path. The Korean walking traveler and author Kim Nam-hee in 2006 wrote the book in Korean A Woman Walking Alone about her 2004 walk along the Camino. Her book's popularity and the influence in had on South Korean tourism to Galicia led the Galician government to award her "special recognition ...at the Embassy of Spain in Seoul for her important contribution to South Korean tourism on the Camino de Santiago" as well as receive the Camino de Santiago journalist's Aymeric Picaud Prize in May 2018.5 Kim has traveled to more than 80 countries and walking became a way of life. She left a comfortable job and stressful life in Korea in January 2003 to travel and learned that though the physical walking was arduous she found happiness, herself, experienced the power of loneliness and became more open to the world and its diversity. The Camino became part of this new life venture. In a 50-minute YouTube interview she shares her philosophy and explains, "To travel, you must not only leave the place you've been living in but also go beyond the boundaries you've created around yourself." She explains that going on foot allows you to go deeper, at your own pace and to have more significant encounters with people and places along the way.6
Following in her footsteps, Hee's compatriot Kim Hyo-sun proceeded to fall in love with the Camino de Santiago and she wrote three books about her pilgrimages along different Camino's in Spain. By 2011 her books had already sold more than 100,000 copies. Due to her overwhelming success, Kim has been dubbed the "Korean Paulo Coelho".7 From 2011 to 2012 there were 1750 Korean pilgrims to 2500 in just one year.
Korean interest in the Camino progressively increased and made a notable leap in 2012. In March 2013 the private Korean TV channel Yon Hap News, in conjunction with the Camino's original Korean ambassador, Kim Nam-hee, filmed a five-segment "reality" television program about five Korean pilgrims walking the French Camino from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela over 25 days. The Korean pilgrims were followed by camerman showing the audience their experiences, conversations and life along the way. 8 The photo on the right shows the group of five pilgrims the "reality" program followed as they trekked across Spain.
Another major push to follow the Camino among an entire generation of South Koreans was the reunion of Korea's premiere (in the early 2000s) five-member K-pop (genre of Korean pop music) group g.o.d (an acronym for Groove Over Dose) with a "travel variety show" called "Shall We Walk Together"9 in October 2018. Debuting in 1999, this exceedingly popular "boy band" group decided to reunite by walking together from the city of Leon to Santiago de Compostela over two weeks to renew their friendships and celebrate their upcoming 20th anniversary debut. Despite breaking up in 2005, they did have a comeback in 2014 but had not lived or traveled together since their early years. The 10-episode reality television show followed their trek together and earned a "1.5 percent in viewership ratings" and aired throughout the fall of 2018. 10 The photo is a promotional photo for the program used by the producer JTBC.
In the same vein, in February 2019 the Spanish national television news station Antena3 reported the filming of a new Korean reality tv program utilizing three of South Korea's most famous actors with a new take on the Camino de Santiago experience: the three actors run an albergue, a pilgrim's accommodation, and cook for the pilgrims. Set in the village of Villafranca del Bierzo (Leon), the show has the actors purchasing local products in markets and local shops and then preparing them for pilgrims. The signage used to indicate the way to the albergue is in Korean.The show is set to air in April 2019 and is bound to make an impact due to the actors' fame. 11
It is evident that the Camino de Santiago's popularity in Korean can only further increase with such extensive publicity by well-known public figures in many differential roles in society.
Social Media: Koreans Are Social Media Adepts
Word of mouth used to mean literally word of mouth meaning something became popular because people were talking about it. When print media became widely available to the general public, reading and writing became another way to spread the word. WIth the birth of radio and then television it was easy to convey news and information quickly over a wide area if you had access to the receipt or sending of the message. The telephone and then fax bought news ways for the average Joe to transmit information and then the real revolution began with the birth of the Internet. With the rise of computers and the Internet in the 20thC came the swift evolution of techonological products, especially in the 21st C, that allowed rapid and easy communication between individuals and collective with smaller and smaller devices virtually instantaneously.
I've witnessed the process of how this has impacted the Camino de Santiago since my early studies in the 1990s when computers existed as did email but nobody would consider bringing a large desktop device on the Camino. It's kind of funny to imagine a desktop computer strapped to someone's back but in essence that it what people are capable of now doing in 2019 with the rapid advancements in digital technology that allows a pilgrim to have a remarkable, powerful mobile device (smartphone or iPhone, etc), capabale of doing much more than an old desktop in a fraction of the amount of time and it fits neatly in a pocket.
Part and parcel of the rise of the Internet Age was the explosion of information sources available to potential pilgrims after the year 2000. Pilgrims' associations, Friends of the Camino groups and private individuals started to create websites to provide information to pilgrims on all aspects of the journey: stages, accommodations, logistics, literary and research works, photographs, news, etc. As the digital world evolved and the needs of pilgrims evolved as well, new types of websites were formed, Forums, based on the idea that synergetic group communication and sharing of ideas can be positive for pilgrims at all stages: those looking for information, those who have returned who want to help others and those who might need help along the way. Camino Forums started to spring up in countries all over the world where the pilgrimage was popular to serve as a sounding board for questions and as a place to reunite former pilgrims. It is a model of communication that is very successful and common. Potential pilgrims also access information through other social media platforms such as YouTube which provides videos, FaceBook where many different Camino-oriented groups exist or Instagram where pilgrims share photos. Another evolution in the digitial revolution along the Camino de Santiago has been the creation of Apps (digital application for use on a Smartphone or iPhone device) specifically designed to "help" pilgrims in different ways: as guidebooks, as accommodation and dining finders, weather predictors, locating devices, step counters, track your walk, as communication facilitators, etc. The possibilities are endless and the number of available apps continues to grow.
How does this relate to the Korean case? Koreans are intensely connected to the Internet due to their highly-evolved tech industry and their extensive 4G/5G technology throughout the country. They are the number one users in the world of social media platforms. According to the company Linkfluence, that specializes in helping companies capitalize on social media data:
"Out of a population of 51.25 million, South Korea has more than 45 million internet users, as well as 38.4 million active users on social networks, i.e. 83% of all active users of social networks. This places South Korea in the top 2 for the use of social networking globally (just ahead of Singapore with a rate of 77%). These two countries are way ahead of the US (7th), where 66% of the online population are active users of social networks, and the United Kingdom (10th) with 64% of its internet surfers actively using social networks."
Keeping this in mind, it's no surprise that both participation in Camino Forums and the use of social media platforms to spread the word about the Camino de Santiago have also been fundamental in the exponential growth of Korean participation in the Camino de Santiago. While in Europe the most common free messaging service is WhatsApp, the Korean version is an app called KakaoTalk and 97% of smartphone users in Korea employ it. [Source same as above]. FaceBook is also a common social media platform used by Koreans as is KakaoStory which is particularly popular with the young people to communicate and share news. YouTube is also widely used by Koreans to share their Camino experiences and as a knowledge source for those potentially interested. [source]
In an interview, by phone, with (Diego) Yoon Taeil, the founder the very popular Korean Camino forum https://cafe.naver.com/camino2santiago he jokingly confirmed that piece of data and told me that the other 3% are people under the age of 5. After walking to Santiago in 2008, Diego founded an albergue (now closed since 2018) in Madrid to help Korean pilgrims navigate from their arrival point to their starting points on the Camino serving an important role in the transition process to Spain. He also started a Friends of the Camino Association of Korean pilgrims in Spain and his popular Camino forum in 2009 is still going strong in 2019. The forum currently has more than 38,000 members and 10 people help him manage the activities of the forum that include helping pilgrims get to Santiago, reuniting return pilgrims once they have finished the Camino and even organizing events back in Korea such as preparation walks in the countryside or reunion walks for former pilgrims.
Coming from a highly connected digital society, I asked Diego what his impression was of how Koreans, who often state as a motive for going a desire to get away from the very stressful Korean life, related to their phones and connectivity on the Camino. He explained that Korean pilgrims are much less connected than they normally are on the Camino because they don't typically purchase Spanish sim cards meaning they don't have constant roaming to connect with to the internet. Korean pilgrims typically rely on WiFi availability at bars and end of day lodging's to connect and it is significantly less than would be in normal life. Nonetheless, they still struggle with slowing down on the Camino and typically plan their journeys with a very limited amount of time, the fixed idea they need to start in St Jean Pied de Port and they need to rush to get there. This resonates with a blog by an American English professor from Korea who writes in his June 2017 entry from the Camino: "It seems to me Koreans also bring their own unique culture to the Camino. Back home, Koreans famously apply their puli-puli (hurry-hurry) approach to everything they do from driving, to working, to studying. On the Camino, as they do in Korea, Koreans whizzed-by us with amazing regularity." [note]
As an antropologist, I have found that a difficulty with slowing down or altering your pace to the "here and now" on the Camino is definitely not limited to Koreans though it may be an important cultural characteristic of a goal-oriented, success-oriented stressful society where "doing it all", "doing it right" is important. I asked Diego about this question and he commented that Koreans understand that the Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port (because of Coelho and other Korean writers) and consequently are determined to do it from that spot. Diego also commented in our phone interview in the shift in the Korean pilgrims from the period of 2005 - 2012 and post-2012. In the earlier period he explained that more pilgrims were mature, in their 40s and 50s, having been inspired by Coelho and the books of his compatriots mentioned above. The USA movie The Way (2010) was popular in Korea and helped the shift to a new younger generation of students who, motivated by social media outlets, and word of mouth began to flock to the Camino in ever greater numbers.
Why in WInter?
European holidays typically coincide with the longest break at the end of the academic year in the northern hemisphere summer - July and August. Despite the often hot temperatures in Spain in July and August these are the busiest months on the Camino since the Pilgrim's Office has been keeping records. The fact that Koreans in recent years dominate the statistics in the winter months (as cited above 23 and 25% of non-Spanish pilgrims in Jan and Feb of 2019) is noteworthy. The reason for the large percentage of Koreans walking in winter is due to the Korean system which allows a longer break from mid-December through January
How Korean Return Pilgrims Have Influenced Korea: HIking Trail created
Motives for Korean Pilgrims - stressful life - share conversation I had with a 48 year old Korean social worker while walking together along the Meseta in May 2018. His third time. He intentionally to walk the meseta again from Burgos to Leon because he had an extra week. He spoke about his very stressful life and the power of and attraction of the open spaces of this part of Spain. He felt intensely fulfilled and reenergized walking in them.
1 See Lopez, Lucrezia & Santomil Mosquera, David & Lois González, Rubén Camilo. (2015). Film-Induced Tourism in the Way of Saint James. Almatourism. 6. 10.6092/issn.2036-5195/4951, p. 28. The authors make an interesting case for the internationalization of the Camino de Santiago and the growth of foreign (non-Spanish markets) and pay special attention to the Korean case.
Also by looking at the statistics provided by the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago for the years 2004, 2012 and 2018 it is interesting to compare the evolution of the main Asian nationalities represented: Korea, Japan and China. In 2004 there were 179,944 total pilgrims from 114 countries: Japan was #26 (257 pilgrims), Korea was #51 (18 pilgrims) and China #56 (15 pilgrims). In 2012 there were 192,488 total pilgrims from 133 countries: Japan was #23 (860 pilgrims), Korea was #11 (2493 pilgrims) and China #36 (186 pilgrims). In 2018 there were 327,378 total pilgrims from 177 countries: Japan was #25 (1477 pilgrims), Korea was #9 (5665 pilgrims) and China #28 (1111 pilgrims). While Japan has maintained a similar position in the ranking of nationalities, Korea has made a tremendous leap and China is also a clearly emerging market of growing pilgrims almost reaching Japan's numbers.
2 Frey, Nancy L. 1998. Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago (UC Press), p. 259.
3 Lopez, Lucrezia & Santomil Mosquera, David & Lois González, Rubén Camilo. (2015). Film-Induced Tourism in the Way of Saint James. Almatourism. 6. 10.6092/issn.2036-5195/4951.
4 Frey, op. cit., 160.
Racoma, Bernadine. 2 Dec 2013. The Alchemist in 56 Languages: Most Translated Book by a Living Author. Daytranslations.com Retrieved: 21 Mar 2019 Link: https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/2013/12/alchemist-56-languages-translated-book-living-author-3463/
"El 1 de noviembre se cerrará el paso por el collado de Lepoeder en la primera etapa del Camino de Santiago". Navarra.es. 22 Oct 2018. Retrieved: 31 Mar 2019 Link: https://www.navarra.es/home_es/Actualidad/Sala+de+prensa/Noticias/2018/10/22/cierre+paso+lepoeder.htm
5 Borjas, Fernando. 9 Mar 2018. The South Korean writer Kim Nam Hee, V Prize Aymeric Picaud. Vivecamino.com Retrieved 18 March 2019 Link: https://vivecamino.com/en/the-south-korean-writer-kim-nam-hee-v-prize-aymeric-picaud-no-493/
6 The INNERview with Host Susan Lee MacDonald. The INNERview #92- Kim Nam-hee (김남희), ㅡ Walking traveler. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 25 Dec 2013. Retrieved 20 Mar 2019. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSbbC3WTGXQ
7 See for example the following online news articles:
Cuina, Sandra. "Una coreana se convierte en el nuevo Paulo Coelho del Camino". Elcorreogallego.es. 21 Sept 2011. Retrieved: 18 Mar 2019. Link:
"Los tres libros de Kym Hyo Sun, responsables del incremento de los visitantes coreanos". Laopinioncoruna.es. 4 Jan 2015. Retrieved: 18 Mar 2019 Link:
8 Cela, Dolores. "El Camino de Santiago, plato para un "reality" que emitiran en Corea." Lavozdegalicia.es. 18 Oct 2013. Retrieved: 19 Mar 2019 Link: https://www.lavozdegalicia.es/noticia/television/2013/10/18/camino-santiago-plato-reality-emitiran-corea/0003_201310G18P62991.htm#
9 JTBC Entertainment. [티저] 가슴 뜨거워지는 다섯 남자 god의 산티아고 순례기 〈같이 걸을까〉 10월 첫 방송 ("Shall We Walk Together" trailer). Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 Sept 2018. Retrieved 21 Mar 2019. Link: https://youtu.be/-uGpvSxhXiQ
10 Jin-hai, Park. "g.o.d returns with travel variety show." Koreatimes.co.kr. 14 Oct 2018. Retrieved: 21 Mar 2019 Link: https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/common/printpreview.asp?categoryCode=688&newsIdx=256969
See also "g.o.d" Wikipedia.com Last edited: 10 Mar 2019 Retrieved 21 Mar 2013. Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.o.d
11 "¿Por qué en Villafranca del Bierzo, León, se habla coreano durante estos días?" Antena3news.com. 16 Feb 2019. Retrieved: 21 Mar 2019. Link: https://www.antena3.com/noticias/sociedad/villafranca-del-bierzo-coreano-video_201902165c6838b60cf202af1fc775e7.html
12 "Religion". Korea.net No date given. Retrieved: 16 Mar 2019. Link: http://www.korea.net/AboutKorea/Korean-Life/Religion
13 Op, cit. See also, Rausch, Franklin. Catholic Christianity in Korean History. Oxfordre.com. Mar 2018. Retrieved 16 Mar 2019. Link: http://oxfordre.com/asianhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277727-e-311
Chenard, Gillian Gandon. "Explained: The Unique Case of Korean Social Media". Linkfluence.com. Retrieved: 21 Mar 2019 Link: https://www.linkfluence.com/blog/the-unique-case-of-korean-social-media
Taeli, Diego Yoon. Phone interview. 21 Mar 2019..
Schuit, Steve. "Koreans on the Camino." Koreanbookends.blogspot.com. 8 June 2017. Retrieved: 20 Mar 2019 Link: http://koreanbookends.blogspot.com/2017/06/koreans-on-camino.html