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South Korea: destroying the lives of the Haenyo ‘sea women’

A naval base being built on Jeju Island threatens to destroy the livelihoods of the iconic women shellfish divers and raise levels of rape and prostitution in the surrounding villages. On her return from Jeju, Rebecca Johnson says international action is needed to stop the military construction

The traditional fishing grounds of a famous community of South Korean women shellfish divers, known as Haenyo ( sea women) are scheduled to be blown up today by military explosives. The government has ordered this desecration at Gangjeong Village, Jeju Island, in order to build a naval base to deploy US-made Aegis destroyers equipped with missile defence interceptors.  If the base construction is not halted, the Haenyo will lose an area of outstanding natural beauty and a livelihood that has been passed down through generations of women, where mothers train their daughters to dive deeper and longer than ordinary people, gathering abalone and other shellfish for food and export. 

I visited Jeju last week and met some of the Haenyo sea women, who told me of their desperate struggle to save their fishing grounds, traditions and livelihoods. Although there are several naval bases on South Korea’s mainland and Jeju has been designated an ‘Island of World Peace’ , the construction of this new naval base is being forced through at an estimated cost of $970 million, despite the active opposition of over 90 percent of the local people.  These people understand what is at stake. They are not naïve about their security needs and interests. The last thing Jeju needs is a naval base for Aegis destroyers. US-driven missile defence plans have continued to fail technologically while creating political minefields and destabilising international relations. There are alternative cooperative security and threat-reduction approaches, including progress on global nuclear disarmament and regional initiatives to develop a North-East Asian nuclear weapon free zone, that would do far more to address perceived or possible regional threats. But the South Korean government appears oblivious to such alternatives, and Gangjeong villagers’ appeals to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have so far fallen on deaf - or diplomatically - closed ears.

The construction of the Gangjeong naval base violates UN principles and objectives, including disarmament and development, women’s rights and self determination, and environmental protection and conservation  In addition to the iconic Haenyo sea women, the village of Gangjeong has long been famous for its pristine natural beauty, rare species and ancient archeological treasures.  Its unusual crystal spring is celebrated in an annual ‘Gangjeong Stream Sweetfish Festival’ and the pure water and environment contribute to Gangjeong producing some of the tastiest mandarin oranges in Korea (perhaps the world). 

The Gangjeong villagers have been waging an unequal struggle against the military construction for four years, intensifying their opposition despite the imprisonment of their mayor four months ago for organising this resistance. Little by little they have seen their beautiful heritage turned into a dirty construction site covered in cement. The day before I arrived, a big part of the traditional diving area was roped off as the construction workers made ready their explosives to blow up the Gureombi volcanic rock and sea bed adjacent to Gangjeong village, including part of the Haenyo’s diving area. Local people are told that the shattered coral can be replaced and the rare red-clawed crab relocated. This is not true. Last week several protesters were arrested for entering the spreading ‘construction site’ that spews poisonous dust over their mandarin orchards.

Several more people were arrested trying to bring information about their plight to a high level UN conference on disarmament and non proliferation that took place at a luxurious hotel resort barely fifteen minutes drive from Gangjeong. I was one of the speakers at the conference, which is how I came to be in Jeju. South Korean and UN officials made many references to the ‘Jeju Process’ for disarmament and the importance of Jeju as an ‘Island of World Peace’. Jeju’s Governor Woo Keun Min hosted our dinner and expressed his hope that the island would be designated one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Yet amidst all these speeches, two local women and a religious leader were arrested for coming to our  UN conference, inviting the participants to visit Gangjeong to see the destruction for themselves, and holding a peaceful demonstration with banners that protested the construction of the Aegis base. Unbeknownst to most of the participants but recorded on video, the women were manhandled with particular violence by staff from the hotel, which is owned by electronics giant Samsung, which (coincidently - or not) is also one of the largest stakeholders in the naval base construction.

When I found out about the violent arrest of peaceful protesters at our UN disarmament conference I was deeply shocked. Perhaps I should not have been: contradictions are endemic in this area of work. Though the focus of the UN Conference was disarmament and nonproliferation, only one speaker mentioned UNSC Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which was passed in 2000 to recognise women as agents of change who must be fully involved and integrated in security and peace processes. No mention at all was made of  last year’s UN General Assembly resolution 65/69 on Women, Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, which formally encouraged the United Nations and its members and agencies “to promote the equitable representation of women in all decision-making processes with regard to matters related to disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control”. Passed by consensus, this ground-breaking resolution also called on all states “to support and strengthen the effective participation of women in organizations in the field of disarmament at the local, national, regional and subregional levels”. 

The panels typically featured only one woman out of eight speakers, and the panel on conventional weapons had none at all, despite the leadership role of women in implementing how communities tackle the scourge of guns and other ‘small arms’. Since men continue to dominate the senior positions in arms control diplomacy, their assumptions about the world, and their stake in perpetuating a stagnant status quo, tend to exclude women’s ways of perceiving the weaponized world and how to change it.

I couldn’t do anything about the arrests, but I visited Gangjeong and was taken to Jeju’s main city to meet the protesters as they were released from the police station the next day. I saw for myself the levels of destruction and unified resistance by the villagers. When local leaders sounded a siren, half the village, including a supportive group of priests, left what they were doing and came to the construction gates that now close off their main access to the sea. I sat with them for several hours and shared in their singing and chanting as they blockaded a line of cement mixers and construction lorries,. After listening to the powerful songs of one woman I wasn’t surprised to hear she was a Haenyo diver – those strong lungs again! Later she brought me a plate of her shellfish, the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. With interpretation and help from others she told me of her passion for the sea and pride in the specialised fishing traditions passed down from her foremothers. 

But what of the villagers’ daughters? If the naval base goes ahead, a very different future awaits them. Time and again it has been demonstrated that the presence of a military base increases the risks to women and girls, substantially elevating the levels of rape and prostitution. As we know well from Greenham Common and other US and British bases around the world, rapes committed by military personnel - especially when serving in other countries -  are rarely prosecuted as they should be. Prostitution is treated as more of an unfortunate necessity than an evil, with scant concern for how military bases often destroy and distort the viable job options for local women. That is especially true when new bases are constructed and established on virgin territory, where no military facility has previously existed, as in the case of Gangjeong. 

For many years and in many countries, women have been at the forefront of opposing the weapons, bases and other tools of militarism and violence, whether organised by states or gangs of armed thugs. It’s not enough for the UN just to pass resolutions on women, peace, security and disarmament. To be effective, the policies need to be implemented, structurally, politically and operationally, at all governmental levels. Women’s experiences, expertise and the analytical challenges arising from our different perspectives must be integrated far more effectively at all levals of UN and national policy. Since military policies often have more severe and negative impacts on women, these need to be properly researched and understood before decisions are taken to go ahead.

Urgent appeals have been launched calling on Jeju’s governor and the South Korean government to halt the explosive demolition of the Gureombi rock and fishing grounds and reconsider the decision to build a naval base in this beautiful and historical area. We will be monitoring developments closely and provide further information as this story of village resistance unfolds.