Sun-won Kang recently spent a week occupying five square metres of solitude. He gave up his phone, swapped his clothing for a uniform of dark-blue shirt and slacks and slept on the floor of cell number 207.
He grew a bristly beard, took meals of rice porridge through a door slot and used a toilet and washbowl in the corner.
But this wasn’t prison. In work-addicted South Korea, this was his vacation.
The Land of the Morning Calm is the most overworked nation in Asia. It has the second-longest work hours in the 35-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, after Mexico. South Koreans work 2,069 hours a year, compared to the average of 1,764 hours among OECD countries.
Fourteen-hour days are not uncommon here, nor are six-day workweeks. Small wonder, then, that professionals like Kang seek ways to alleviate burnout.
The 57-year-old engineer was clocking nearly 70 hours a week at a Kia and Hyundai car plant in Seoul. This month, he was among 14 guests who paid 500,000 Korean won ($578 Cdn) to stay for seven days at Prison Inside Me, a meditation centre in Hongcheon, a snowy mountain hamlet two hours west of Pyeongchang.
Here, Kang said, he could slip out of the shackles of manic Korean life by shutting out external stimuli and focusing inward.
“I’m overworking. That’s the main reason I’m here,” he said, his voice barely rising above a whisper on the last day of an intensive zen program called The Gateless Gate.
“Today, I feel more refreshed. My mind is light.”
A feeling of ‘freedom’
This was Kang’s third stay at Prison Inside Me, which opened in 2008. Over the years, hundreds of patrons from around the country have checked in, including office workers, stay-at-home moms and high-school students. One program even hosted a 13-year-old boy.
The 28 identical cells have a window, heated wooden floors, a small table with a diary, a tea set, a yoga mat and a panic button. Though the doors are locked on the outside, participants are shown how to undo the latch from inside.
Repeat visitors insist that for what it lacks in amenities, the facility makes up in spiritual healing. The penal atmosphere provides Kang with something he feels he’s missing back in the capital.
“Freedom,” he said.
That attitude reflects the irony of the jail-themed retreat, said Ji-hyang Roh, the facility’s co-founder.
“Locking themselves up in solitary confinement here is not a prison; the true prison is the world outside,” she mused.
The complex was the brainchild of her husband, Yong-Seok Kwon. As a prosecutor in the countryside, Kwon was working 100-hour weeks. It took a physical and mental toll.