Jeju haenyeo UNESCO heritage

Posted : 2016-12-02 16:11 Updated : 2018-05-20 12:49
A female diver of Jeju Island works in the sea off Namwon-eup, Seogwipo, digging for conches. / Yonhap

By Kim Ji-soo

The female divers of Jeju Island ― the island known for its strong winds, stony land and strong women ― have been added to UNESCO's cultural heritage list.

In a country where men are usually the breadwinners, these female divers on the island took on that role, working in the traditional way without air tanks. And UNESCO recognized their singularity.

Their listing was forecast and UNESCO, in its session held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Wednesday, added "haenyeo" (literally, sea women), to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. This marks Korea's 19th cultural asset to be recognized by UNESCO.

The U.N. body noted that the culture of the women divers shows the region's unique cultural identity and the empowerment of women.

"I feel so happy I could fly," Hong Kyung-ja, 65, a haenyeo in Hallim-eup, Jeju Island, told The Korea Times over the phone. Hong has been working in the sea since she was 12 years old, following in her mother's footsteps.

"I think the strength of the female divers of Jeju Island is embodied in the community spirit. Not only do we work together as a group, like for us, 40 divers work together and we sometimes share our catches fairly with the novices. But we also help out the community when it's suffering economically," said Hong.

The haenyeo work with flippers, goggles and a float when they dig for seafood such as abalone and conches.

The number of haenyeo, once peaking at 23,000, is down to around 4,300, as more women leave the island for educational opportunities and other jobs. Many of them are over 60 years old.

A female diver displays her catch she caught under water on Jeju Island. Yonhap

A group of female divers prepares to go to work wearing bodysuits and carrying their floats on Jeju Island. / Yonhap

Divers return to land after a group dive in the waters off Namwon-eup, Seogwipo, Jeju Island. / Yonhap

Female divers bow in their ritual of prayer to the "god of the seas" for safety on Jeju Island. / Yonhap