The Egg and the Rock


September 12, 2014


See the multimedia piece here:



Greetings from gorgeous Jeju Island, some fifty miles off the coast of South Korea. I’m here on a reporting trip, supported by a Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellowship.

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Jeju dream team: Hyejin Shim, Puck, Diana Nucera

At first glance there is a timeless quality to life here. Traditions seem bound as much to the rhythms of the sea as to collective memory, social convention or economics.

This is home to 18,000 goddesses (so we’ve been told), karaoke-singing tangerine farmers, deep-sea diving grandmothers known as haenyeo, and a long history of spirited island culture known for its comparatively matriarchal ways.

Kang Ae-Shim, 60, comes from a long line of haenyeo, or “sea women” – deep-sea free divers who have, for the last two centuries, been at the center of the island’s unique, matriarchal fishing culture. We met with her at a restaurant and cultural center where interested patrons can feast on fresh seafood harvested by the women.

Haenyeo work well into their seventies and submerge as deep as 60 feet without oxygen tanks or respirators. Clad in wetsuits and goggles, armed with only a sharp knife and net, they scour rare, soft coral reefs for sea cucumber, seaweed, octopi, urchin and shellfish, holding their breath for as long as two minutes at a time.

Haenyeo women are generally the breadwinners for their families. In a region where Confucianism has left its indelible patriarchal mark everywhere, haenyo culture has long upended conventional gender roles on the island.

“Here, the birth of a baby girl was so valued that the saying goes: ‘Have a baby girl, and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass,’” a state-sponsored tourism website boasts in English.

There are haenyeo on other islands and in coastal towns of Korea and Japan, but experts say that the tradition, which was once entwined with shamanic spirituality, originated from Jeju. Even now, there are songs all haenyeo seem to know, and like the sea itself, they are self-evident and seem to have no origin.

Like rural and subsistence-based cultures everywhere, haenyeo face challenges in continuing their legacy. There are an estimated 5,000 haenyeo living and working on Jeju Island today, down from 30,000 in 1950. Many of the haenyeo are over the age of 50.

Although several years ago the government opened a free, 17-week diving school for young women, more daughters are choosing to leave home and try their luck in the cities instead.

Globalization has brought the tourist economy to the isolated island. Jeju was formed by a volcanic blast that left its once-molten signature everywhere. Waves crash tirelessly against jagged, black volcanic rock formations and alien-looking craters. The island boasts more UNESCO ecological reserves than anywhere else on the planet. Honeymooners from Seoul pose for photos by Jeju Island’s dramatic waterfalls. The more adventurous can hike in the largely untouched Gotjawal forest, where a new, endemic genus of plant was recently discovered.

But a new, $970 million, 123-acre naval base that is currently being built may mark the beginning of the end of the island’s subsistence fishing and farming cultures. Some ecologists say that the base will irreparably damage Jeju’s pristine coastline. The base’s security perimeter will block off areas where haenyeo have dived for generations. Korea’s last surviving bottlenose dolphins will likely die off. Toxic run-off and sediment stirred up by construction could destroy 98 acres of the area’s rare soft coral reef forest, which is home to nine endangered species. And that’s to say nothing of the impact of an expected 5,000 military personnel who would be stationed in barracks nearby.

But perhaps what rankles some of Jeju Island’s residents most is that parked among the South Korean nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and warships to be berthed at the Gangjeong naval base, there will be U.S.-owned battleships known as “Aegis destroyers.” No doubt, Gangjeong villagers say, the ships’ missiles will most likely be trained on Jeju’s powerful neighbor to the north, China. And if that alone doesn’t turn idyllic Jeju into a prime military target, they reason, what would?

Jeju Island coastline view
Jeju Island coastline view

It’s not the first time that Jeju Island, 46 miles wide and 26 miles long, has gotten caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s war.

Jeju, the southernmost island of Korea, is just 300 miles away from China and 500 from Japan. In 1910, Jeju, along with the rest of Korea, was brutally annexed by Japan.

After Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea was carved up by the US and Soviet Union while Korean political groups clashed and fought for control. In 1948, the US and South Korea held elections that led to the division of the peninsula into two states. Jeju Islanders took to the streets to protest. In a subsequent “anti-Red” campaign led by US-backed Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, 30,000 islanders – or almost one in five – were killed, according to Korea historian, John Merrill.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the crimes were acknowledged by then-president, Roh Moo-hyun. He issued a formal apology for the massacre and declared Jeju an “island of world peace.”

Peace didn’t last long.

It wasn’t so surprising. In many ways, in the Asia Pacific, the Cold War never ended. Although combat in the Korean War ceased in 1953, the US never left the region. The US has maintained 219 outposts on foreign soil in Asia. There are dozens in South Korea alone, as well as in Taiwan, Okinawa, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore.

Since the 1990s, South Korean officials had been eyeing sites on Jeju for a new military base, according to a lawyer we met up with in Seoul. Then in 2007, the mayor of Gangjeong Village held an unusual meeting. Only 87 out of 1,050 residents were present. All were older haenyo, who, according to one haenyo woman, didn’t often attend such meetings. The women passed a vote approving construction of the military base.

The incident divided the tight-knit haenyo community as well as the larger village. Many accused the mayor, naval officers and government of bribing the older women.

“The land and sea isn’t something you bought,” haenyeo Kang Ae-Shim told Korean-American activist, Christine Ahn, in 2011. “Why are you selling something that was there long before you were born?”

In the following months, outraged islanders ousted the old mayor and elected a new, anti-base one. They filed lawsuits and held a referendum – during which 94 percent of the villagers voted against the base. When their efforts did not stop the project, some of the island’s residents took the fight to the next level. During the last five years, elderly villagers have chained themselves to construction equipment, lay down in front of bulldozers, staged hunger strikes, done jail time, and penned banners in their own blood.

A view of the construction of the naval base from a nearby spring.
Construction of the naval base, seen from a nearby spring.

But construction began in earnest last fall. Although many media outlets have stopped reporting on the conflict, the story continues. Haenyeo continue to dive, avoiding those areas clouded by sediment caused by dynamite and construction. Gangjeeong residents return daily to the construction sites, hoping to at least postpone the destruction of their homes, fishing spots and farms.

Currently, some of the villagers opposed to the base are on a five-day march around the perimeter of the island, calling for peace and the end of the naval base construction.

Meanwhile, military buildup continues in the region. In 2011, President Obama announced that the US would redeploy much of its military from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia Pacific in what he called a “Pacific Pivot.” By 2020, sixty percent of the US naval fleet are expected to be stationed in the area. Both North Korea and China have responded with hostility to the US military build-up. Recently, North Korea threatened to attack Guam after the US sent B52 bombers over South Korea, as part of what they said was military training.

Sleepy Jeju Island is not where one might expect the legacies of the Cold War to come to a head. But as tensions escalate in the Asia Pacific, the ongoing quest for demilitarization launched by the residents of Jeju pose questions that many in the world have stopped thinking about since the perceived threat of nuclear war receded with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The questions raised are the big, unanswerable kind – the kind that provoke nervous chuckling and a change of subject at dinner parties.

What does it mean to seek demilitarization? What does is look like to build an economy of peace instead of one that perpetuates war? Where do humans fit in the ecology of life on earth? How can a people respond with disarmament when all around them is war?

The third annual peace march around Jeju Island leaves from Gangjeong Village on July 29.
The third annual peace march around Jeju Island leaves from Gangjeong Village on July 29.

This morning we met with Jeong Young Hee, a tangerine farmer and the chairwoman of Women Villagers’ Committee to Stop Naval Base Construction. In May she visited Oakland, California, on a US speaking tour. Today she gave us a tour of her farm and greenhouses, from where you can see the naval base construction.

“What will we be able to leave for future generations?” she asked sadly, referring to a sacred area of the coast that has been demolished by the naval base construction.

Jeong Young Hee
Jeong Young Hee, tangerine farmer and chairwoman of Women Villagers’ Committee to Stop Naval Base Construction.

For the next few weeks, my two partners in crime—a videographer and interpreter—and I will be here on the island. We’ll be talking to villagers and experts on both sides of the controversial South Korean naval base being built in 450-year-old Gangjeong village.

Tonight we meet with haenyeo from nearby villages. Stay tuned for more updates…