Why You Need to Know About South Korean Haenyeo

Why You Need to Know About South Korean Haenyeo

It can be difficult to support a family all on your own – for many who could not afford higher education, providers take on physical labor in construction, factory, and agricultural work to do so. For women living on Jeju Island in South Korea, however, body-intensive work takes on a different form: deep sea diving.

Many unique things draw attention to Jeju, the largest island in the nation, but one of the most interesting is its matriarchal societal structure. Women head families, as they bring in income as haenyeo, which is Korean for “sea women.” Adult women dive into the sea in search of abalone, conches, and sea urchins, among the many other seafood delicacies that are often cherished in island and waterfront nations in Asia. In recent years, increasing demand for fresh seafood have left families able to improve the infrastructure and living conditions of their villages.

Haenyeo culture dates back to the 1600s, when women began to dive in the Korea Strait to search for seafood while men in the culture went to war, or fished further out at sea. Research from The New York Times shows how dangerous the work is – they dive in treacherous, icy waters, struggling to improve their bounty in order to make ends meet. The number of sea women have declined in recent years, as South Korea’s economy expands rapidly. Younger women living on Jeju Island have turned to higher education, or other industries, such as tourism, in order to provide for their families.

It seems hazardous, but unfortunately necessary, for the few thousand women to continue working in the waters. They dive with weights strapped around their waist, do not use breathing equipment, and use sharp tools to pry the seafood from the ocean floor. Overharvesting and technological improvements in recent decades have led them to work even harder and longer to pluck these delicacies from the ocean. Estimates say that the average age of these women hovers around 60, and it will only increase as young women choose to work in mainland, urban South Korea instead of following haenyeo tradition.

As these women age, and more become aware of the conditions that they work in, many have taken measures to make their work less painful. The government subsidizes and provides insurance and shelters for haenyeo, and workers are careful to keep medicine around to ease the discomfort that comes with working constantly in the sea. However, it still stands that they will eventually become a thing of the past. Cultural experts believe that Jeju will revert to a patriarchal family structure as haenyeo cease working.

Over the past decade, media culture has shed light on the rarely talked about culture. Journalists have traveled to Jeju to report and photograph the astonishing workers, and films – both fictional works and documentaries – such as My Mother, the Mermaid and BBC’s Haenyeo: Women of the Sea. In 2014, South Korea successfully applied to add the haenyeo to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Cover image courtesy of Brenda Paik Sunoo.