As it turned out. I wasn’t completely wrong. And my Korean friends were not completely right about the mermaids.
The woman we went to see in lovely, lovely U-do island is known for her spectacular photos of the female Korean divers or haenyo. Here is an old photo of them, taken in the 70’s. Today they wear wetsuits but look very similar in their own way.
The purpose of the tour was to relax and get away from the police and the gates for a while. One gets tired of battling it out and of thinking about the election, the 70 day ban on construction that is not listened to, the fines and court orders that are coming in. And the police surveillance van with a very visual camera staring right at the gate. It does not matter so much if they were actually in the van, the culture that I experience here is so built around us and them now that it seems more or less expected that they have the activists mapped out.
While it was a vacation, the advocacy flyers were not far away in the car and were handed out when it seemed right. The yellow vest was on the driver. I came along as a friend and as it turned out, a token international who came to Korea to support and document the struggle. Which went ok even if I don’t speak Korean. We had coffee and orange marmelade sandwiches at the photographer’s traditional house on the island and talked about the naval base not being just a Gangjeong issue but a much bigger one. We met with the catholic priest and talked about other islands(like Okinawa)where there already are bases connecting the American defence to other islands and bases in the mainland of, for example South Korea. The cost of that. For the world. For the people coming after us. And also what price people like the Haenyo are paying when the sea bed and the sea-shore, gureombi, is changed and off-limits where the base is being built.
And it not just because this is a traditional trade that is passed on in the families. It is not just because this is a job that brings in money by picking a variety of sea food, shells, sea weed. Or even because there is a traditional shaman faith in the community that ties them together with the sea and is often practices outside. It is not even because they now know that the local dolphin, red-handed crab and several types of hard coral are on the red alert list, being rare and are all in danger of being extinct due to the naval base.
It is all of these things. Things that are hard to put a finger or a price on. Things that the navy can’t pay their way out of when they buy off the women that can no longer use a part of the sea.