The Curious Case Of South Korea’s “Sea Women”

A South Korean haenyeo on Jeju island
A South Korean haenyeo on Jeju island
Jason Strother

JEJU ISLAND â€" Kang Ok-ja, 75, looks out toward the ocean from the roadside. It’s not a good day for diving, she tells me. Waves crash against black volcanic rocks that line a stretch of Jeju Island’s north coast. Wind and rain are common on this South Korean island.

"The waves don’t look so high now but the wind is picking up and they'll get bigger," says Kang. "It won’t be safe for us to dive today."

She would know. Kang is a haenyeo, or "sea woman," and has been diving in these waters since she was a teenager.

For centuries, sea women like Kang on Jeju Island have helped support their families and communities by diving to the bottom of the ocean, holding their breath for up to two minutes to catch all kinds of seafood.

A generation ago, there were tens of thousands of these sea women. Today, they are several hundred, and many of them are now in their 60s.

For Kang, diving to catch seafood has been a family tradition. "My mother was a haenyeo. I saw her suffer a lot from the work. She told me that she didn’t want me to become one. She said it was too difficult,” says Kang. "She quit when I was 15 so I started diving to help the family."

"Please roll over"

When Kang began diving, there were about 40 sea women in her neighborhood. Now, she is one of just three left. The trio dives together when possible. The women swim about 40 meters into the ocean wearing black rubber wetsuits, goggles and flippers. They shun air tanks. Instead, they dive about 15 meters or more deep with the help of three to five kilogram weights.

The group carries knives and other tools to free their catch. "Catching an octopus is difficult if it’s stuck to a rock," says Kang. "You just have to cut one leg off at a time. If I run out of breath, I’ll swim back up, catch my breath and dive back down to finish the job. I'm a very competitive person. I want to win.”

Octopuses aren’t the only sea creatures to give haenyeo a tough time. The women are cautious around dolphins whose dorsal fins could hurt them. But Kang says they have a mantra.

"We have a little spell we put on the dolphins," she says. "We repeat: "Please roll over, please roll over." We say it and they flip over. They don’t want to hurt us."

Diving poses some health risks. Kang has undergone back surgery and can't hear out of her right ear because of the sudden pressure changes her work involves.

"My scariest moment diving was when one of my colleagues died," she recalls. "It was up to me to bring her body out of the water and up onto the rocks. It really scared me."

Dying tradition

The danger of diving to the ocean floor is one reason why Jeju Island’s young women don’t want to follow in the footsteps of their haenyeo mothers and grandmothers. But now, as this tradition fades from the island, some Korean women are starting to view the divers as heroes.

"From my balcony you can see the ocean. I counted how many minutes they can hold their breath," says Kwon Min-jin, 32, who moved to Jeju from Seoul a couple years ago. "It was amazing. When I see them, at first they just look like grandmas. But in the ocean they're like mermaids."

Kwon, who enrolled at a diving school run by haenyeo to learn how to catch seafood, says she's struggling to hold her breath the way sea women do. She says she is not giving up her day job any time soon.

On Jeju’s east coast, a community of 300 sea women work at the Seopji Haenyeo House. The women, who work in 22-day shifts, rotate diving, cooking and waiting tables at the House’s restaurant. I find tanks filled with sea cucumbers, conches and shellfish in there. In the kitchen, I watch a pan of conches become engulfed in flames.

Staff say that abalone, a type of shellfish, used to be the most popular and expensive dish a couple of decades ago. But these days, it’s almost impossible to find any on the ocean floor because of environmental damage as well as the greed of some of the sea women. The diminishing catch of seafood is another reason that the haenyeo tradition is dying.

"They took all of them, didn’t leave any of (the abalone) behind to reproduce," says diver Lee Sun-duk.

The Jeju government is trying to keep alive the haenyeo livelihood. Officials applied for UNESCO world heritage status and promote a haenyeo diving show for tourists. The diving spectacle shows women jumping into a lagoon. The divers then emerge minutes later with shellfish and sing a song for the audience.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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