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Jeju's three female divers named independence fighters by patriots ministry

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Portraits of Bu Chun-hwa, far left, Kim Ok-ryeon and Bu Deok-ryang / Courtesy of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs
Portraits of Bu Chun-hwa, far left, Kim Ok-ryeon and Bu Deok-ryang / Courtesy of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs

By Park Han-sol

Three "haenyeo," or women divers of Jeju Island, who led the key resistance movement during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial occupation, were selected as the "Independence Fighters of the Month" of January 2022, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (MPVA) announced Friday.

This is the first time the ministry has named the Jeju islanders as independence fighters as part of its monthly designation project, which began in 1992.

In the early 1930s, Bu Chun-hwa, Kim Ok-ryeon and Bu Deok-ryang led what came to be the country's largest civil protest ever organized by women against the Japanese forces. Joined by some 17,000 participants, part of the movement's aim was to address the colonial government's economic exploitation of marine resources and labor.

All born in Gujwa-eup on the island, the three women started their lives as haenyeo at an early age, between 9 and 15, to help put food on the table for their families.

But while working as divers, they also attended the same night school, an experience that gradually raised their spirit of resistance and national awareness within colonized Korea, the MPVA stated.

One day in 1930, in the small Jeju village of Hado-ri, a group of young men took issue with the Japanese-controlled union's illicit sale of Ceylon moss ― a seaweed used to produce agar, which soon led to their arrests by the colonial police.

After witnessing the quick suppression of a nonviolent protest against colonial Japan's economic exploitation of the islanders, the haenyeo soon joined forces, with the three women chosen as their leaders.

On Jan. 12, 1932, the divers came out to the street, wielding their seafood harvesting tools like handheld scrapers ("bitchang") and picks ("homaengi"). But the Japanese armed forces arrested a number of key figures just days after the incident.

As prisoners awaiting trial, the three women were locked behind bars for months. Bu Deok-ryang died soon afterwards due to wounds she sustained from torture. She was only 28.

In the early 2000s, the government conferred the National Foundational Medal on all three women.

Park Han-sol


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