The following article celebrates Earth Day and the importance of preserving traditional knowledge about the environment. The story of the Jeju haenyeo reminds us of the incompatibilities of imperialism with human dignity and the planet’s health.

With the long-awaited end of World War II, the promise of liberation was in the air. People who had suffered under Nazi and Japanese wartime regimes were slowly picking up the fragments of disrupted lives. Even the seeds of decolonization took root during these tentative years. Many former colonial holdings had experienced Western incompetence firsthand: the British abandoned Singapore to the mercy of the encroaching Japanese imperial army; the United States left the Philippines severely under-armed in the fractious Pacific. Coupled with these failings, the United Nations Charter called for equal rights and the “self-determination of peoples.”

Korea was one such state, and its people were hungry for independence. Prior to their defeat in 1945, the Japanese government had occupied the Korean Peninsula for nearly 35 years. Between 1910 and 1945, the Japanese imposed heavy changes on Korean society. The Japanese emperor personally appointed high-ranking officials into the Korean office, effectively demoting the local populace to second-class citizens.

Min Jin Lee’s award-winning Pachinko chronicles the events of these turbulent years: Koreans did not have the right to freedom of assembly, press, and speech. Education was pro-Japanese, and actively omitted Korean history and language. Even with this forced assimilation, the Koreans still remained outsiders in their own country. Yet amid these storms of change, a tiny strip of land remained defiant.

Roots of resistance

Jeju is home to the acclaimed haneyeo, or mermaid divers. Since the 1600s, these women have been the primary leaders in both their families and communities. While explanations for their active role on the island vary, the Jeju haenyeo proved adept at open deep-sea diving. The emergence of this matriarchal society was particularly groundbreaking for the era. Since the 13th century, Korea had integrated highly patriarchal ideals from Chinese Confucianism; the haenyeo’s very existence was a contradiction to this system.

These women wore nothing but cloth bathing suits and scoured the sea floors for abalone, seaweed, and shellfish. They braved frigid temperatures and could hold their breaths for over three minutes. Apart from these extraordinary feats, these women would become the ultimate colonial protestors.

Today, Jeju is South Korea’s first and only special autonomous province. This unique status is due to the island’s physical location. Even with the Goryeo invasion in the 10th century, Jeju islanders maintained a language and culture distinct from their mainland cousins. Due to its isolated nature, Jeju also served as a prison for exiled intellectuals. Collectively, these legacies and the emergence of a centuries-old matriarchy arguably established Jeju’s identity as a haven for progressive and even potentially dissident ideas.

Source: 100 Icons of Korean Culture

Mermaid divers and a legacy of survival

After years of relative freedom, Jeju was finally brought to heel by the Japanese in 1910. The island was a crucial wellspring for rapidly expanding Japanese industries: Jeju’s underwater areas teemed with volcanic reefs rich in seafood and other minerals. As a consequence, the Jeju haenyeo faced fierce competition from modern Japanese fisheries that depleted the region’s once-abundant ecosystem.  

Despite these setbacks, the Jeju haeneyo and their families fared better than those on the peninsula. In 2018, Purdue University released a study exploring the Jeju haenyeo as models of empowerment. Researchers Seohyeon Lee and Soon-ok Myong primarily drew from the Korean newspaper, the Maeilshinbo. Although the paper was pro-Japanese and consequently absent from critical literature, Lee and Myong argued that its feature articles offered insights on the Jeju haenyeo.

Lee and Myong write that despite competing with Japanese fisheries, the Jeju Haenyeo were in high demand for their deep-sea diving skills. They traveled around the region, diving in Korean, Chinese, and even Russian waters. In lean times and stringent tax periods, the haenyeo could provide for their communities. By Dec. 1927, 5,000 out of 8,000 women divers from Jeju sustained the island’s economy. The Maeilshinbo quipped, “The Haenyeo living in Jeju or the Jeju enlivened by Haenyeo?”

Indeed, the Jeju haenyeo used their new economic success to fund various projects. Some funded bridegrooms’ tuition expenses, while others even invested in tillable farmland. There are even instances where some Jeju haenyeo donated a ship and a warplane to the national government. In addition to their status as independent women, the Jeju haenyeo were also strong political activists. They petitioned a request to the Japanese government to compensate damages to marine products, unfair ownership laws, and many others.

“With these arms and legs, why could we not make money?”

Criticism still followed the Jeju haenyeo. Korean mainlanders often ridiculed them as “loose” given their diving suits and their communities’ high divorce rates. True to form, however, the Jeju haenyeo proudly declared: “With these arms and legs, why could we not earn money? Why [let] ourselves be abused by husbands who despise us? We try to make up our lifelong budget by ourselves to the last.”

The Jeju haenyeo were fierce defenders of justice and their homeland. Their ardent convictions would tragically lead them to one of the darkest days in history.  

When hope became hell

“[The Americans] seemed to have come to the same conclusion that the Japanese had reached long ago: Jeju had a great strategic location. The island was now an American stepping stone, only this time it led to the USSR.”

Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

By chance misfortune, the USSR occupied the northern half of Korea, while the US claimed the southern half. Though a tentative peace had been achieved, a new conflict was already brewing on the global stage—the ideological clash between communism and liberal democracy.  

Ignoring Korean voices for self-determination, both the USSR and the US held “free” elections in their respective territories. Given Jeju’s strong history of political activism, its residents would have none of this foreign interference. Backed by the local People’s Committee, Jeju residents protested the American-influenced elections and voiced their concerns about the permanent division of the peninsula. These rallies were met with police brutality and in two short months, the massacre unfolded.

The April 3 massacre

Researchers in 1992 examine Darangshi cave for the first time since 1948 when 11 people were killed inside by government forces. Source: The Jeju Weekly, Kim Gi Sam

Emboldened by an American presence, extreme Korean right-wing groups beat the island into submission. Hun Joon Kim’s The Massacres at Mt. Halla chronicles the systemic killings undertaken on Jeju. Believing a majority of the residents to be communists and sympathizers, policemen and military men killed with impunity.

An ambulance driver stationed at the Bukchon Elementary School recalled the day. Officers had rounded up roughly one hundred villagers. Once the residents had been counted, the military officers discussed the best way to kill the residents. One suggested, “Since there are still many soldiers who have not yet had the experience of shooting anyone to death, I think it would be good” if those platoons went first.

Military men slaughtered insurgents and civilians alike. Villagers were gunned down in the very caves where they sought refuge. To this day, their bones remain in huddled heaps—a cruel reminder of the war the Seoul government waged against its own people. Though the United States denies its involvement, many American military men remained bystanders to the tragedy. Between 25,000 and 30,000 civilians were either wounded or killed.

Almost forgotten memories

Up until the late 1980s, South Korea remained a right-wing government. The Jeju massacre was purged from national memory, and many on the island were branded as traitors. For many decades, it was a crime to speak of the incident.

In spite of this tragedy, the Jeju haenyeo continued their deep-sea practices. Over the years, the haenyeo became of great interest to academics and scientists curious about their physiological abilities as well as the knowledge they harbored of the sea. In 2016, UNESCO recognized the Jeju haeneyo as an Intangible Heritage. With every passing year, the significance of the ever-dwindling haenyeo breached national consciousness.  

After 71 years, the South Korean Defense Ministry offered its first public apology to the survivors and victims’ families. At a 2019 memorial, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon pledged, “The Moon Jae-in administration has taken it as its historical mission to uncover the truth of Jeju April 3 and restore the dignity [of the victims].”

What we remember

Jeju haenyeo pose for tourist grips with their deep-sea finds. Note that despite their new diving gear, they still go without oxygen tanks. Source: This Is Korea Tours

In 1970, there were more than 14,000 haenyeo. Since 2005, that number has rapidly decreased to a mere 4,000. As the haenyeo age, their culture and history will soon die with them. 

The Jeju haenyeo possess invaluable knowledge about the underwater world, which can contribute to the fight against climate change. A 2019 Journal of Marine and Island Cultures report detailed the haenyeo’s role. The researchers cited them as a “specialized group of women whose traditional ecological knowledge” put them on the frontlines of environmental change. As an aging population, the Jeju haenyeo can only help so much.

This dilemma then reignites the memory of the 4.3 Uprising. During the conflict, Jeju lost 10% of its population. How many potential haenyeo were lost? 

The political and ecological story of the Jeju haenyeo reminds us of the deficiency of imperialism on a human and environmental scale. Jeju was a victim of both classic and Cold War imperialism. Foreign governments bypassed local knowledge and depleted ecosystems. Foreign governments intervened and split the country in two, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. These actions have had devastating consequences.

In the name of expansion and economy, forests were felled, and locals relocated. In the name of glory and security, lines were drawn, and families divided. As the number of Jeju haenyeo declines, the question becomes clear: what other paradises has imperialism destroyed?

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