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Preserving Jeju’s haenyeo traditionsAn update on efforts to revitalize the fortunes of the island’s women divers
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승인 2014.12.23  18:53:44
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▲ Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of Moon Tides (2011)

Can the haenyeo be saved?

Much has been written regarding the need to preserve this dying tradition of free-diving women, one so unique as to garner global attention. As efforts continue, an update is warranted.

First: UNESCO. Korea's central government applied in March of this year for UNESCO inscription of Jeju haenyeo culture as world intangible cultural heritage.

The annual cycle of UNESCO inscription includes several stages over a 15-month period, for which a nation may only submit one application in a category. UNESCO will review a maximum of 50 applications in a cycle.

In 2014, however, there were 61 applicant nations, causing UNESCO to rank them according to previously received inscriptions. This eliminated China (topping out with 37 inscriptions), Japan (second, with 22) and Korea (at third with 16); those 50 countries accepted for review all have seven or fewer.

Korea also has 26 pending applications, dating back to 2010. (The limit of one per year was only recently imposed.) The haenyeo application, therefore, is on hold, eligible for consideration again next year. Applying for "emergency inscription" has been mentioned, but as this is generally reserved for heritage in imminent danger of extinction, it is highly unlikely.

A number of other preservation efforts have been recently launched or are in development.

Jeju provincial government has been actively sponsoring the haenyeo community since 2002, when subsidies for medical care were introduced. Currently, the government provides 120 billion won per year to include medical assistance, village fishing collective renovations, and membership fee support (500,000 won per person).

The Fisheries Policy Division of Jeju provincial government is preparing a comprehensive resource management system, according to its chief, Kim Chang Sun. This aims to ensure the long-term sustainability of marine products and implement provincial guidelines for fisheries, heretofore managed at the village level.

The international United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) organization, for which Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong is currently serving as president of the Asia-Pacific (ASPAC) region, recently sent culture division president Catherine Cullen to Jeju. The province is included in UCLG's Pilot Cities Programme as a model for the inclusion of culture in sustainable development policy.

Cullen was introduced to the value of Jeju haenyeo culture through a tour of the Haenyeo Museum; a meeting with museum director, government officials, and several haenyeo themselves; and, an expert panel meeting at which a presentation on Jeju haenyeo was provided.

The Haenyeo Museum in Sehwa-ri, Gujwa-eup, recently completed a multi-level Culture Center in which educational programs, performances and events are to be held, a preservation endeavor to increase public awareness of the divers' tradition for locals and tourists alike.

The museum, under the auspices of Jeju government, provides education and materials for primary school children both at the museum and in the schools, targeted according to three age groups. The institution also conducts research, publicly distributed and increasingly available in English and other languages from the museum website.

A second haenyeo summer school, whereby people may learn the diving and harvesting practices as well as gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for their tradition, is scheduled to open in 2015. It will be in the Hamdeok area and facilitated by the Jeju Sea Grant Center of Jeju National University. The original school, now in its seventh year, is located in Gwideok.

International awareness of the haenyeo tradition is booming. The Google Culture Center now features information and photos regarding Jeju haenyeo on its website. David Alan Harvey, a renowned American culture photographer associated with Magnum Photos, recently photographed the haenyeo for an upcoming book; Harvey previously featured the diving women as part of an Arirang series on coastal communities in Korea. Internationally recognized artists, writers, and filmmakers continue to produce work on the theme of Jeju haenyeo, while numerous articles in commercial media have been published around the world.

In October of this year, an international symposium on haenyeo preservation including UNESCO inscription was organized by Jeju Sea Grant Center, next in a series of such forums begun in 2006. Participants included central and provincial government officials, UNESCO representatives for Korea, academics, writers, haenyeo, and more. Kang Kyunghee, a sophomore at Jeju National University High School, spoke on efforts made by a group of students at her school to educate others regarding the value of Jeju haenyeo.

Yoo Chul-in, anthropology professor of Jeju National University and president of the Society for Jeju Studies who has extensively studied and written on the topic of Jeju haenyeo, presented on current and proposed measures of preservation.

Among Yoo's proposals: a balance for haenyeo between diving work and tourism presentations; steady, guaranteed income through resource management; other means for reduction of working days and hours in order to improve safety; recruitment through relaxation of requirements for licensure and subsidy of relevant fees; and, development of a curriculum based on Jeju haenyeo culture for use in the school system.

Government officials, civic organizations, culture experts, artists and writers, journalists, and many more continue their endeavors to preserve this unique and valuable tradition. The haenyeo themselves, however, perhaps simultaneously relishing and resisting such attention, continue to remain ambivalent at best about the future of their practices.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York and an Honorary Ambassador for Jeju Island.

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