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Naked Ambition:
Seoul naturists fight for the right to bare all in public

by Jean Briesbois


The Earl of Marcia has a lot to answer for. In daring his wife Lady Godiva to demonstrate her love of aesthetics by riding naked on horseback through a Coventry marketplace at midday, he unwittingly consigned her to the pages of history as a role model for millions around the world who believe in challenging one of society's greatest taboos.  


Despite the fact that Godiva's 11th century ride is more than likely a myth, the concept of her unashamed public celebration of the perfection of the human body continues to provide New Zealanders Sally and Rene de Jonghe with a source of inspiration in their struggle to pursue a naturist lifestyle in Seoul.


Refusing to be interviewed unless I removed the barriers to communication between us, Sally and Rene watched whilst I went commando and shed the psychological and social encumbrances of my clothing before accompanying them in a visit to their rooftop Garden of Eden.


"Now, isn't that better?" Rene asked as I reclined in a deck chair, soaking up the midday sun whilst strategically positioning my writing pad and doing my best to appear comfortable. "You see, nudity allows you to accept the wholesomeness and stability of the human body, to see and respect our natural form as it is created."


Looking down at my hairy bloated belly, I began to think about who was responsible for creating this natural form and whether I could get a refund, or exchange it for another one.


"What you're doing now is incredibly healthy," Sally added reassuringly. "Your nudity helps you to appreciate the environment and encourages you to lead a healthier and more humane life. The naturist lifestyle really is richer, simpler, and more enlightened through joy and freedom."


This was all beginning to sound a little too cultish for my liking. Glancing around the palm-fringed compound...I mean rooftop, I half expected the International Naturist Federation's equivalent of Reverend Moon Sun-myung to leap out and complete my recruitment to the cause.


At that moment, our conversation on the merits of the naturist lifestyle was interrupted by the booming recorded voice of Korean male who sounded suspiciously like a mobile vendor who advertises his wares over a PA system come rain hail or shine.


"Nappun! You're all nappun. Stop! You're going to hell! Nappun! You're all nappun. Stop! You're going to hell! Nappun! You're all nappun. Stop! You're going to hell!"


The only difference between the looped recording that I was suffering through in Sally and Rene's Garden of Eden and the versions that I suffer through at home, was the fact that this message was in English and the speaker was clearly not selling anything.


"Don't worry about that, it's only Mr Kwan," Rene said with a smile. "He'll play that recording until we come down from Eden, there's absolutely nothing that we can do about it."


According to the de Jonghes, their neighbour, Mr Kwan, has been harassing them ever since he spotted the couple and some friends letting it all hang out whilst playing  badminton on their rooftop.  


At first the harassment began with isolated incidents of shouting, but quickly escalated into stone and bottle throwing. This was followed by screaming confrontations in the hallway outside their apartment and finally, visits by the local constabulary.


"It's hilarious," Sally laughed. "Mr  Kwan calls the police every time we go out onto the rooftop, but now when the boys in blue arrive, they don't even get out of the car, they just drive slowly by. I understand a little bit of Korean and one day overheard the officers telling Mr  Kwan not to waste their time anymore, he looked like he was going to explode."


Kwan  Seung-hwan, a 40-year resident of the neighbourhood has a very different opinion of the activities that takes place on his neighbour's rooftop.


"Disgusting, there's no other word to describe it. They go up onto their rooftop naked and in full view of the entire neighbourhood. To make matters worse, they invite their friends over and have parties late at night. There's drinking and many other things going on up there."


"I am tired of watching this deviates parade their bodies around," he added. "They don't even have good bodies. As far as I am concerned there is a time and a place for everything and my neighbourhood is not it."


Mr  Kwan said that he had circulated a petition around the neighbourhood calling for the de Jonghe's eviction. Despite tirelessly visiting with local residents, he hasn't been able to collect enough signatures and is temporarily resigning himself to accepting their naturist lifestyle.


This doesn't mean Mr  Kwan has given up trying to force Sally and Rene to leave. The "morality recording", which he plays whenever he sees naked bodies frolicking in his neighbours rooftop garden is inspired by U.S. soldiers who blasted rock music to drive out General Manuel Noriega from his refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City following the 1989 U.S. invasion.


Kim Bu-il, owner of the de Jonghe's apartment building, who exudes a cheery and laid back approach to his tenant's naturist lifestyle, is unfazed by the commotion that is being caused in the neighbourhood.


"Sally and Rene are very kind people who paid a lot of money for their apartment. As far as I am concerned, they have a right to do whatever they want on my rooftop as long as it doesn't break the law."


"There are always going to be some people who disapprove of others' lifestyle choices, Mr Kim said. In my opinion, Mr Kwan lives in a bygone age of prudery and is misguided in his belief that nudity is violation of religious beliefs."


Intrigued, I quickly confirmed this theological fact with a quick flick through the bible which states in Genesis chapter two verse 25 that Adam and Eve "were naked and not ashamed" until the unfortunate apple incident.


But not everyone is as sympathetic to the de Jonghe's naturist lifestyle choice as Mr Kim. A recent excursion to Namsan Mountain to celebrate World Naturist Day ended in disaster when the couple were spotted frolicking naked by a platoon of marine veterans.


The former marines, most of whom are in their late 40s or early 50s, patrol Seoul's parks and bar districts as a kind of an unofficial morality police force. Unfortunately for Sally and Rene, a squad of these men just happened to be marching through the park when they spotted the naked couple enjoying the late afternoon sun.


'It was like all hell broke loose," Rene said. "One minute, the park was really quiet, most people had left after we took our clothes off, and the next, well...all these army ajushis appeared out of nowhere and started running towards us."


Park Jong-ik, patrol captain for the platoon that confronted the de Jonghes was surprised by the couple's state of undress but believes that his group of ex-marines handled the situation professionally.


"We're not law enforcement so we cannot actually prosecute them," Mr Park explains. "All we can do is encourage them to get dressed and leave the park. Nudity is not tolerated in public spaces in Korea."


Undeterred by their experience in the park, Sally and Rene's radical campaign to bare all continues unabated. They are awaiting a decision from the Belgium-based International Naturist Federation on their application to form a Korean chapter and are also planning a series of Han Riverside Park protests to highlight the "injustice" of being forced to wear clothes all the time.


As I left, Sally and Rene began welcoming fellow naturists for an afternoon barbecue. I politely declined their invitation to join them despite the couple's reassurances that most of their guests like to dress for meals.


"Many naturists like to dress for meals. But don't sweat it," winked Rene, "everyone  strips off for the digestif after."


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January 30 , 2006