A traditional South Korean livelihood is taking a dive

A few thousand South Koreans dive for shellfish, seaweed, and occasionally pearls to make a living, but their numbers are dwindling.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Kim Ok-sun, swathed in a black rubber wet suit, goggles shielding her eyes, jumps off a small boat, disappears for about 20 seconds, then surfaces clutching a squirming multi-tentacled creature at the end of a stick.

It’s a routine she’s been practicing five hours a day, five or six days a week, for 40 years. She says she began diving “to make a living” and has done well. “It’s not a big business,” she says, sitting on the cement floor of a nearby hut where she and other divers gather before and after dives, “but we’re not suffering from poverty.”

Ms. Kim is one of about 5,000 divers who plunge into the fertile waters surrounding the verdant island of Jeju 50 miles off mainland South Korea’s southern coast, looking mostly for shellfish and seaweed. In bygone centuries women came up with exotic fare for the king and royal family in their palaces in Seoul. These days, the divers themselves are a tourist attraction, plunging as much as 50 to 60 feet below the surface with no equipment other than goggles and a spearlike stick. The tradition, however, is in danger of dying. The youngest diver is 51; the oldest, 83.

Besides coming up with sea creatures that are indigenous to the local waters, Kim often settles for shellfish, including oysters. “With luck, you can find a pearl,” she says, “but that’s very rare.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.