South Korea: destroying the lives of the Haenyo ‘sea women’

Author(s): Dr Rebecca Johnson
19 November 2011
A naval base being built on Jeju Island threatens to destroy the livelihoods of the iconic women shellfish divers and raise levels of rape and prostitution in the surrounding villages. On her return from Jeju, Acronym Institute Director Rebecca Johnson, writing in OpenDemocracy, says international action is needed to stop the military construction.

The traditional fishing grounds of a famous community of South Korean women shellfish divers, known as Haenyo ( sea women) are scheduled to be blown up today by military explosives. The government has ordered this desecration at Gangjeong Village, Jeju Island, in order to build a naval base to deploy US-made Aegis destroyers equipped with missile defence interceptors.  If the base construction is not halted, the Haenyo will lose an area of outstanding natural beauty and a livelihood that has been passed down through generations of women, where mothers train their daughters to dive deeper and longer than ordinary people, gathering abalone and other shellfish for food and export.
I visited Jeju last week and met some of the Haenyo sea women, who told me of their desperate struggle to save their fishing grounds, traditions and livelihoods. Although there are several naval bases on South Korea’s mainland and Jeju has been designated an ‘Island of World Peace’, the construction of this new naval base is being forced through at an estimated cost of $970 million, despite the active opposition of over 90 percent of the local people.  These people understand what is at stake. They are not naïve about their security needs and interests. The last thing Jeju needs is a naval base for Aegis destroyers. US-driven missile defence plans have continued to fail technologically while creating political minefields and destabilising international relations. There are alternative cooperative security and threat-reduction approaches, including progress on global nuclear disarmament and regional initiatives to develop a North-East Asian nuclear weapon free zone, that would do far more to address perceived or possible regional threats. But the South Korean government appears oblivious to such alternatives, and Gangjeong villagers’ appeals to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have so far fallen on deaf - or diplomatically - closed ears.

The construction of the Gangjeong naval base violates UN principles and objectives, including disarmament and development, women’s rights and self determination, and environmental protection and conservation  In addition to the iconic Haenyo sea women, the village of Gangjeong has long been famous for its pristine natural beauty, rare species and ancient archeological treasures.  Its unusual crystal spring is celebrated in an annual ‘Gangjeong Stream Sweetfish Festival’ and the pure water and environment contribute to Gangjeong producing some of the tastiest mandarin oranges in Korea (perhaps the world). 

The Gangjeong villagers have been waging an unequal struggle against the military construction for four years, intensifying their opposition despite the imprisonment of their mayor four months ago for organising this resistance. Little by little they have seen their beautiful heritage turned into a dirty construction site covered in cement. The day before I arrived, a big part of the traditional diving area was roped off as the construction workers made ready their explosives to blow up the Gureombi volcanic rock and sea bed adjacent to Gangjeong village, including part of the Haenyo’s diving area. Local people are told that the shattered coral can be replaced and the rare red-clawed crab relocated. This is not true. Last week several protesters were arrested for entering the spreading ‘construction site’ that spews poisonous dust over their mandarin orchards.

Several more people were arrested trying to bring information about their plight to a high level UN conference on disarmament and non proliferation that took place at a luxurious hotel resort barely fifteen minutes drive from Gangjeong. I was one of the speakers at the conference, which is how I came to be in Jeju. South Korean and UN officials made many references to the ‘Jeju Process’ for disarmament and the importance of Jeju as an ‘Island of World Peace’. Jeju’s Governor Woo Keun Min hosted our dinner and expressed his hope that the island would be designated one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Yet amidst all these speeches, two local women and a religious leader were arrested for coming to our  UN conference, inviting the participants to visit Gangjeong to see the destruction for themselves, and holding a peaceful demonstration with banners that protested the construction of the Aegis base. Unbeknownst to most of the participants but recorded on video, the women were manhandled with particular violence by staff from the hotel, which is owned by