Sea Women of South Korea

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"Haenyeo still in her street shoes at Ilc" (CC BY 2.0) by amanderson2

Liz Waid and Colin Lowther tell about a group of women, called haenyeo, who practice a traditional way of hunting for shellfish. These women do a dangerous, but important, job.

Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2  

And I’m Colin Lowther. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1  

A woman walks to the beach on Jeju Island, South Korea. She is going to work. The woman wears a black wetsuit that covers her whole body. She has a mask on her face to keep water out of her eyes. She dives deep down into the water. She does not have an oxygen tank. She holds her breath. The woman gathers shellfish from the bottom of the ocean. Then she swims back to the surface with her catch. She will do this up to 100 times this day. And she is 70 years old! This woman is part of the haenyeo. In Korean this means sea women. There are thousands of haenyeo on Jeju Island. Today’s Spotlight is on these strong women of the sea.

Haenyeo still in her street shoes at Ilc” (CC BY 2.0) by amanderson2
Voice 2  

Jeju Island is mostly made of black volcanic rock. Before modern farming equipment, people could not grow much food here. So, they dove into the sea for food. Many creatures live in shells deep in the ocean. The people of Jeju ate and sold this shellfish to support their families. But by the 1600’s many men from Jeju left the island. They went to fight or to work on ships. The work of diving for shellfish became a job for women – the haenyeo.

Voice 1  

The money earned from the haenyeo’s shellfish trade is a large part of Jeju’s economy. But being a haenyeo is also a way of life. They have a deep respect for the ocean. They also have a close connection to each other. And the haenyeo hold a special place in Korean society. Here, it is not common for women to do physical work as the main support for their families.

Voice 2  

A haenyeo’s work is very physically and mentally challenging. The sea is very cold. It moves with currents and waves. In the past, women dove in light cotton clothing. Today, the haenyeo have diving masks and wetsuits. But these smell very strongly. And the women are often sick from the sea. Working in the ocean is also very dangerous. They dive up to six hours a day. The haenyeo must hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time. Diving can cause injury and even death. The New York Times reports that in the last ten years more than 40 haenyeo have died.

Voice 1  

This danger is one reason why the number of haenyeo is decreasing. Many modern Korean girls do not want to do such dangerous, physical work. The New York Times reports that in the 1960’s, there were 26,000 haenyeo. There are now only about 4,500. And the working haenyeo are growing old. Eighty-four percent of them are over the age of 60.

Voice 2  

But people are interested in haenyeo culture, both in South Korea and around the world. Brenda Paik Sunoo lives on Jeju Island. She wrote a book called Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea. She explains to the travel website Roads and Kingdoms:

Voice 3  

“Over the past 15 years or so, the respect for the haenyeo has risen. The haenyeo’s gift is not just economic. It is social. It is cultural.”

Brenda Paik Sunoo at a book reception;
Moon Tides: The Women Divers of Jeju Isl” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea
Voice 1  

The haenyeo are an important symbol of traditional culture. They show the values of hard work, independence and community. Some people may look down on the haenyeo because they do physical labour. Other people respect their hard work and position in society. The haenyeo are a special combination of strength and gentleness.

Voice 2  

And there are some good things about being a haenyeo. They have a way to make money that gives them financial independence. Haenyeo are also part of an important social community. Ji-ae Chae is a young single mother. She used to work in the capital city, Seoul. But she returned to Jeju to work as a haenyeo. She says that the best part of the work is the support from the other women. Chae tells Roads and Kingdoms:

Voice 4  

“They take care of my children. It is very good. My children have grandmothers all around them. The women divers are a big community. When I was in Seoul, I did not like people. When I became a woman diver, I liked people again.”

Voice 1  

Chae is one of the few younger haenyeo. But it is possible that in the future there will be no haenyeo left. It takes a long time to train new divers. And not enough women are making the same choice that Chae has. Yang Hi-bum is a government official on Jeju. He told the New York Times:

Voice 5  

“Most of the haenyeo will be gone in 20 years unless more women join them.”

김형찬 / CC BY 2.0 KR
Voice 2  

The government on Jeju Island is working to save the tradition of the haenyeo. They opened a Haenyeo Museum in 2006. And since 2015, the Jeju government helps the haenyeo pay for equipment and accident and medical insurance. Globally, people also respect and support the haenyeo. In 2016, the divers gained the title of UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognizes the special spirit of the haenyeo. It also awards their good methods. They are always careful of the environment. Sometimes they do not dive for shellfish, even if they could make a lot of money. This way they protect the natural balance of the ocean. Brenda Sunoo talks about how this also protects the haenyeo:

Voice 3  

“They have to use faith to know when to stop. To have enough breath to come up slowly. To not take too much time to take that final sea urchin or abalone that is trapped under the rock.”

Voice 1  

The haenyeo show the world courage and patience. They also show the importance of balance. They must balance their lives above and below water. They must balance the money they get with environmental health. This wisdom and practice of balance keeps the women of the seas alive. The future will show whether their tradition stays alive as well.

Voice 2  

Have you ever heard of these women? Are there similar communities in your area? You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at You can also comment on Facebook at

Voice 1  

The writer of this program was Rena Dam. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Sea Women of South Korea’.

Voice 2  

Visit our website to download our free app for Android and Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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Are you part of a close community? What makes a community a close one?

Join the discussion

  • I have never heard about the women of the sea. It’s really interesting and shows how women are strong and wise. It also an excellent habillity. I have been learning to dive and to swim. I live near of the sea and I believe that it so important to think about environmental balance.

  • I’ve never heard about them, I do not know too much about South Korea’s culture, I did not imagine that they have a tradition like this, it is interesting how the womans of jeju Island learned to dive into the ocean to earn some money or provide some food for their families.

  • It is like strange story for me as I’ve never ever heard of these women. Therefore, after listening this i went through Google and searched for Seawomen of south koria and was astonished to see the result.

  • I never heard about these women, but I’m really proud of them they’re powerful and courage to do this work❤️❤️

  • the women in my country want always work but they choice they can be like a queen or like an employee, I like the women who take care of her child

  • No,I Never heard of these women, but l had fun to show this story it is so amazing …in my area the people make a festivals and celebrations of the messenger born .it’s traditional and mores

  • No, I don’t hear that. Yes, we have same in my country. But they are men, not women. They go together to desert to hunt animals.

  • Yes, being a part of a close community you should participate in any activities in your community. You should share your ideas in solving a problem in your community that so you’re showing your passion or dedication in your community.

  • – Umm no , but I hope. Some days I will be a part of close community .

    – ummm I think that the one things that make people or community a close one when they have a same passion , job and field even though hobbies.

    This episode gave me many and new information about this beautiful world , I have never heard to these things before , I knew how the women can do , how they strong and they have a big and interesting abilities

  • No, I am not but, I hope that.
    And also this woman’s are so strong, I respect them because they showing the values of hard work.

  • I never heard of these women , but in my community there are a lot of women who help their families , where they work hard like farmers

  • I never heard about these women , it’s interesting how strong sea women .that work physically and mentally challenging

  • No. I don’t have any close community. I just have close friends. I have seen haenyeo on TV when I saw Korea movie. I am so respect them who are so brave, patient and how they connect to the sea.

  • I never heard about these powerful women , but I believe that each woman could achieves a lot of works when she knows herself , believe on her capacity and potential .

  • The Haenyeo are extraordinary women, and their commitment to each other, their love for the sea, and their fearlessness give me courage. They are real, hardworking women who defy social expectations beyond the imagination.

  • This work is hard for women but shows women strong and he can do everything for childrens or families , I like the broadcast today ✅

  • Actually in the future I want to live in Japan or Korea because I really like thier technological development in

  • No, I have never heard of these women before, and I do not know of a society similar to this in my country

  • I have never about them when ı listen to this topic ı felt how life in this world is difficult. these women need real support from the government also international community organizations.
    finally, these women proved to all the world their’s are strong.

  • When I was in college, I used to join a social work team, in the team there were many people with similar views and the same direction. I think always overcome difficult things together, it will help the community become closer.

  • I never heard about of these women of the sea or haenyeo. There are thousand of haenyeo live in Jeju island, south Korea. These women are really strong, brave. I can’t imagine that they swim and dive deep down into the water, do this up to 100 times each day although 70 years old. There is not similar communities in my area.

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