South Korea's hardy but dwindling Jeju women divers
By Jack Barton
Asia;South Korea

Kim Sim-nyeong is more than 80 years old and has been a haenyo, or sea woman, for over 65 years.

She learned how to dive when she was young in order to make a living.

Like other haenyo divers in South Korea, Kim plunges as deep as 20 meters to harvest sea creatures without the aid of oxygen tanks.

The women use a traditional tool called a homi to pry sea urchins and other shellfish from their hiding places beneath the rocks.

But it's a tough job, with plenty of risks and little appeal to young people in a country where other job opportunities abound.

Haenyo Kim Sim-nyeong puts on her diving suit. /CGTN Photo

Haenyo Kim Sim-nyeong puts on her diving suit. /CGTN Photo

"In the past we had 70 haenyo in my town but [the number] kept declining to 60, 50, 40. Now we have 37 or 38 haenyo left. There are now fewer older people, and younger people are no longer doing it," Kim told CGTN's Assignment Asia.

In the 1960s there were more than 23,000 haenyo just on Jeju Island or about ten percent of all the female population at the time.

It was once a young woman's job. But now, 98 percent of haenyos are over the age of 50.

The haenyo in Jeju, South Korea. /CGTN Photo

The haenyo in Jeju, South Korea. /CGTN Photo

While passing on this skill from mother to daughter has largely died out, some young women and even men from the mainland are showing interest.

After watching haenyo in action, 25-year-old Kim Do-yeon took a break from her art degree in Seoul, packed a single bag and came to Jeju Island where she enrolled in the world's only haenyo school.

The Hansupul Haenyeo School is trying to revive the haenyo way of life, or at the very least save it from extinction.

Assignment Asia is CGTN’s award-winning current affairs program featuring long-form stories and documentaries on some of the most pressing issues in the region. The show airs Saturdays at 1330 and 2130 GMT, with replays every Sunday at 0630, Monday at 0130, and Tuesday at 0530.