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Will a UNESCO title save the haenyeo?The bid to have haenyeo designated as intangible cultural heritage was promoted at the 13th Cultural Tourism Forum
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승인 2013.12.26  15:53:51
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▲ Haenyeo march toward the ocean with Seongsan Ilchulbong in the background. Photo courtesyJeju Special Self-Governing Province

Jeju achieved the UNESCO triple crown after being designated thrice by UNESCO: as World Natural Heritage, a Biosphere Reserve, and part of the Global Geoparks Network. Not stopping there, Jeju has recently sought to have haenyeo culture designated as intangible cultural heritage, too, in recognition of the unique centuries-old tradition of women divers.

As a part of the challenge, the 13th Cultural Tourism Forum was held by Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council at Venture Maru Building in City Hall on Dec. 7, 2013. The forum pro-moted the bid for UNESCO designation and the speakers there shed light on haenyeo culture and sought practical methods to preserve it.

Among the most notable speakers were Lee Sunhwa, a member of Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council, and Hyun Kiyoung, a novelist and author of Suni Samchon, a book providing an moving account of the 4.3 Massacre in Jeju.

Haenyeo women divers can be traced all the way back to Tamna, the old kingdom of Jeju. Like the mythical all-female warriors of ancient Greece, haenyeo have occasionally been charac-terized as the “Amazons of Asia,” owing to their prowess as divers, and their roles as family breadwinners, propping up the local economy instead of men. With their long history, tradition of hard work, and independence, the haenyeo way of life is firmly established as part of the unique and invaluable culture of Jeju.

Compared to Korea’s other intangible cultural heritage, such as kimchi and arirang, haenyeo are not known around the world, or even by all Koreans. In addition, Japan is also attempting to certify its own ama women divers - similar to Jeju’s haenyeo - as intangible cultural heritage. This means that haenyeo must compete not only against other domestic candidates, but inter-nationally, also. Since the term ‘haenyeo’ was itself imported from Japan, it has been proposed to revert to ‘jamnyeo’ or ‘jamsu,’ as used in Jeju dialect.

During the forum, Lee Kimyung, a representative of Magnum Photos in Korea, a world-renowned photographers’ cooperative, discussed the potential for haenyeo to become more appreciated internationally, such as by introducing haenyeo culture through influential media such as National Geographic.

David Alan Harvey, whose photos have been printed in National Geographic 45 times, was impressed by haenyeo culture when he visited Korea to capture them on film. I asked him to post the pictures of haenyeo on National Geographic and he said he would look into it positively,” Lee said.

However, rather than yet another designation by UNESCO, of which Jeju already has many, the actual preservation of haenyeo culture and the continuance of their tradition, currently under threat, ought to be higher on the provincial government’s list of priorities.

Even if it were designated as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, it would be meaningless if haenyeo, who go into the sea to make a living, disappeared. There-fore, it is necessary for the younger gener-ation to inherit the tradition,” novelist Hyun Kiyoung emphasized.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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