Jeju Island’s Haenyo: A User’s Manual, Should I Stay or Should I go? Interview with a young person who left Jeju Island, Feminist Journalist R.L.

Should I stay or should I go? It’s a question virtually all the youth of Jeju Island have to ask themselves at some point. For many, especially academic achievers, to stay isn’t really an option. Good schools and opportunity lie elsewhere—the mainland or abroad. This is the second of a mini-installation of interviews in the Jeju Island’s Haenyo: A User’s Manual series of posts about the younger generation of Jeju women and their choices. I spoke with R.L., who is a twenty-eight year old journalist, writing for one of few South Korean publications that offer cultural criticism as a mainstay. R.L. talks about her decision to leave Jeju Island, the occasional exclusion she faces in Seoul, and fighting internet trolls—including the equivalent of the alt-right in the West, who take issue with many of her views. The first interview in the series, featuring one of Jeju’s youngest women divers is here. 

As with all posts in this series, names and place names have been changed to protect the identity of the subject.


First, let me ask you, are there any women divers in your family?

Actually, there are no divers in my family. My extended family members are mainly farmers. But most of the younger generation in my family moved away from Jeju when they were in their twenties. They left for university or to pursue work.

Thanks for doing the interview in English, by the way.

No problem, and thanks to you, since I don’t get much practice nowadays. I only get to use English once a week at my media club, where we read stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and other big English publications like those.

Can you tell me about your past on Jeju Island?

I grew up on Jeju Island and stayed there until I was twenty years old. I’m twenty-eight now. There have been so many changes on the island since I left for Seoul.

Before we talk about the changes, can you tell me about your family’s history? Are they all from Jeju?

Yes, they grew up on the island and everyone spent their whole lives there, though my mom relocated to Seoul a few years ago. She is probably more comfortable on Jeju than living in the city.

What’s it like for you living in Seoul?

Personally, I think that people on Jeju Island and people from Seoul are very different from one another. Jeju is a very small society, so people are very tough. Rumors can make things challenging. In Seoul, you can be—anonymous—not so on Jeju Island. At first, it was very awkward for me living in the city, but now I’m used to it. I don’t feel that positive about Jeju Island’s social options, because most of the cultural facilities in Korea are in Seoul. Museums, theater and other arts.

Being anonymous must be a great gift after growing up in Jeju!

Yes, right. But there are negative things as well. Seoul is a poor environment for health, the air for instance. (laughter)

Seoul is a more progressive environment than Jeju I would imagine?

I’m not sure if this helps to answer your question, but when I meet up with some friends who came to Seoul from Jeju, we compare the two places. Some of my friends say they want to move back to Jeju when they are older, but now they prefer living here for the various experiences available to us. That is probably the biggest reason people prefer Seoul, myself included.

Do you still consider yourself to be a Jeju person?

Yes. Even though I relocated to Seoul, I feel a clear difference in myself. For example, I live in Gangnam-bu Apgujeong. This is a rich area, as everyone knows, but I’m not that rich (laughter). I feel people here can sometimes be selfish, unkind—artificial. Jeju is stifling socially, but Seoul has an artificial atmosphere. So, I feel like I can’t be the same person I was before. Also, there can be some discrimination against people like me.

Tell me a story about an incident that made you feel that way.

I’m in the choir at church—and I feel ashamed that I describe myself this way—but I think that since I am the lead singer, people only like me for my singing ability and have no real interest in getting close to me. I feel that my background is too different from theirs. The people at church maintain relationships only with people who are originally from Seoul. The first time I came to church I introduced myself as a person from Jeju Island. At first, people were curious about it. They said it was incredible that I was from Korea’s most famous island, but I didn’t ever know them to try to make any kind of real relationship with me. I could sense that there were some strange feelings about the fact I was from Jeju. My sister is in the choir and she felt it, too. People in Seoul are polite, so they don’t express their judgement outwardly, but they still leave me out of meetings when they get together outside of church. At first, I didn’t know they were meeting without me, but eventually I noticed. It really hurt me then, but now I’ve finally managed to become a little bit closer with them.

So, now you’re really in the lion’s den? With the elite in Seoul?

Ha, ha. I think that’s exactly right.

I want to ask you about your career now. I know that, like other people from your geneartion, you had to struggle through many trials, doing many interships and working part-time jobs to finally find a job in your field. Can you tell me what you’re doing now.

I’m a journalist at a web magazine. This magazine isn’t very typical of journalism in Korea. It’s pretty unique.

If you could compare it to an English language publication…

Do you know Vox?


It’s like Vox, similar to the culture articles you find there. Or you could say it was similar to Rolling Stone or Vulture. You could say I play a similar role to the people who write for those publications. My magazine is in a class of its own in Korea.

What are you writing about?

I write about music, K-dramas and American shows—and movies. For example. I wrote about the film Dream Book. I’m currently writing about the popular K-drama, Sky Castle. I also write about cultural phenomena, like this past year’s Queen revival in Korea. I dig beneath the surface of these popular movements and try to identify the deeper issues.

I know you write about women’s issues. This is a time of great change for women in Korea. Since this series is about Jeju’s women divers, I wanted to ask you about that.

Yes, I naturally consider much about women and how they are portrayed in the dramas I write about. Do you know the drama Romance Is a Bonus Book? In the drama, the actress Na Young Lee plays a divorced woman. Actually, it was a big deal in Korea, that a woman, such as her character portrays, was expressed in a drama like that. Before, we’ve had too many princesses. Women are most often shown to be immature—basically only concerned about surface things. They are portrayed as thoughtless and hurtful to other people. So, when dramas portray women to be like that—or conversely, as naive—it’s following a stereotype. So many people got aggressive online after I wrote the article praising Na Young Lee’s character. They said the usual thing—that I was using the drama to push my feminist agenda. They thought I was biased. In Korea, so many people think feminism arriving to the nation is a negative development. Whenever I think about those comments I feel pretty awful.

Do you get some far right-wing internet trolls, or what we’d call the alt-right in the U.S., commenting on the stories?

Yes. I always get those kind of things, the trolls (laughter). Actually, we call the ‘green-ilbae’. is Korea’s largest search engine and the theme of the front page is green. The comments are very biased to men’s opinions. Since our alt-right site is ‘ilbae’, many people call the ‘green-ilbae’.

How do you deal with the nasty comments?

At first, I really struggled, but now I accept the fact that if I write a story I’m to expect that kind of comment. I think it is simply a trial that we have to face to eventually achieve equality. And there is always a backlash to any victory. Nasty comments are part of this backlash. When I wrote about Amber Heard, one comment really affected me. ‘This journalist is writing about a movement, not about a movie.’ Maybe it can be true that I have framed things that way, but I don’t think that’s the only substance to my article.

You wrote about the female prosecutor, Ji-hyun Seo, one of the key figures in Korea’s #MeToo movement.

Right. I did. We were very shocked about Seo Ji-hyun. Because she was very accomplished and intelligent, a woman who achieved a high position in the judicial system. It struck me when I wrote the article, the thought that even though she held such a position, she could still face sexual harassment. As a nation, we learned that a woman of any stature can become a victim. It’s quite sobering to think that, and many women felt strongly about her experience. It was a critical case.

I’m going to switch gears. I want to talk about the women divers on Jeju Island. People often say that they are very strong—leaders of their families. They often make more money than their husbands. Also, because of the massacres of the 4.3 Uprising and other factors, many elderly women on the island have lived their lives without husbands, raising their children. That’s the common view, it seems.

I don’t know so much, because I’m not from that generation. And there weren’t any divers around me growing up. But I think I heard some famous things about them when I was young. I often heard the phrase about three famous things on Jeju—rocks, wind—and the third thing is—women. So, I often wondered—why the hell is the third thing women? Personally, I don’t feel any particular strength being a woman from Jeju, but I heard about that a lot when I was young. They always said women were strong and diligent. So, I have an image of the strong woman of Jeju Island, yet I think this strength they talk about can be related to patriarchy, too.

Interesting, please explain.

The men weren’t that strong and couldn’t keep up their side of the social contract. So, women had to do more work. Maybe, the idea of rocks, wind and women can sound quaint, but it could be that the men were more like upperclassmen and the women were seen as lowly farmers, merely laborers.

One of the stories in this series is about a man and a woman who are of two classes in a way, the elderly husband went to University—and the wife, a diver—she paid for his tuition! He blushed when asked if his wife put him through school. I remember thinking it was interesting that he could speak perfect Korean that he’d learned on the mainland, while she spoke mainly in Jeju-eo.

(Laughter) What I just said can be applied to that period, the 1950s or 1960s and further back in time. Whenever I think of the image of Jeju women from the past, I get sick. My grandmother can be an example of this class difference. My grandfather was an intellectual who studied in Japan and my grandmother had to work very hard doing farm labor.

Are you aware of how the haenyo have become something of a tourist attraction?

Starting in elementary school, they taught me that the haenyo’s work had to be preserved as a tradition. Many people seem to think they should be a symbol of the island.

You said Jeju has changed a lot?

Actually, when I was young, Jeju was much less polluted than it is now. The island used to be a place where you could experience many amazing and beautiful things, but now so many tourists have overrun the place. Many investors from China and elsewhere have bought up so much of the land. So far, us Jeju natives have had the history of only experiencing people from the island. I’ve come home on visits to find that I was the only native person in a coffee shop or the swimming pool I used to swim at. When I was young, I never imaged that.

So, you swim?

Yeah, but it’s been about four years since I’ve swam.

Maybe you do have a haenyo in your ancestry.

(Laughter) I’ve not very good at swimming anymore.

Do you feel like Jeju is your home still?

Yes. I’m not especially proud of it. But I don’t dislike the fact, either.

So, it is what it is?


Would you advise young people on Jeju to stay or go?

I would tell them to come to Seoul for the experience. I think they will probably choose the best for themselves. Personally, I think the best choice is to make the choice to return or not, after having the experience of being outside.

Would you like to move back later in life?

It’s something I think about. Perhaps, I will, after I quit my present job. I read an article about a woman poet who went to Jeju and wrote poems there. After reading that, I thought that life there can’t be that bad.

If you came back what would you do?

I didn’t think about it yet, but I think I’d keep writing. I think about it in a positive way.

* *

Also, in this series:

Bil-le, bil-le, Beach of Death
The Diver who tried to Die at Sea

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Sunoo says:

    Interesting and enlightening interview, G.
    Tx for your always insightful writings about Jeju and her people.


  2. Thanks for reading, Jan, looking forward to catching up soon.


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