Jeju Island of South Korea has received multiple recognitions for its natural wonders. But its living traditions, including shamanism and free-diving women, are less well-known but no less wondrous.
This is the story of an island called Jeju, in the South Sea…a place like no other, with several thousand years of human civilization in harmony with nature and today the first and only place in the world to receive all 3 UNESCO natural science designations…and a place in the throes of modernization….
This is the story of Jeju Island…and the story of indigenous peoples and unique, sacred lands…all over the world.
Women’s Empowerment Principles, known as WEP, were co-created by two United Nations organizations: UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM; and, UN Global Compact.
UN Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses around the world which base their economic principles on universally accepted standards of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.
UNIFEM is now a part of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. The six focus areas of UN Women include prevention of violence against women, peace and security issues, leadership and participation, national planning and budgeting, economic empowerment, and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
The WEP were launched in March of 2010 on International Women’s Day, for the purpose of achieving economic equality for women across the globe. They are based on an earlier version known as the Calvert Women’s Principles, developed in 2004.
Many women’s organizations around the world have adopted these principles. One such example is Business and Professional Women International, known as BPW, an NGO which began in 1930 and now has member groups in 80 countries on 5 continents.
The 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles are:
- Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality;
- Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination;
- Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers;
- Promote education, training, and professional development for women;
- Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women;
- Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy;
- Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.
These 7 empowerment principles, however, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome.
The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one location to the next.
Thus, as a so-called “western woman” living in Asia, as a professional with a keen interest in culture and how it affects the individual and societal psyche, I would ask each of you: when contemplating how best to achieve these very worthy goals in your country: how can you work within your own cultural matrix in order to effect change?
Jeju women have a longstanding reputation of strength. “The Strong Jeju Woman” is legendary. Feminists in Korea’s mainland point to Jeju women as an example of indigenous feminism. Words like “matriarchy” and “amazonian” have been frequently – if erroneously – employed.
On Jeju, scholars, feminists, and professional women question this identification somewhat.
It’s surely true that the women of this island – and, without a doubt, those of many societies that have endured hardship – share qualities of diligence, fortitude, and courage.
It’s also true that, within the societies of Jeju’s famed diving women, highly structured economic cooperatives and collaborative labor practices have long existed, and women have historically been the backbone of Jeju’s economy.
Thus, Jeju women value independence, individualism, strong will and a certain freedom of thought in ways that differ from their mainland counterparts.
As an example, Jeju women grow up expecting to work – and state that they feel they would be a disappointment to their parents, grandparents, and in-laws, if they did not. They also typically continue working well into their elder years. This is a marked cultural distinction from peninsular Korea.
Women within Korean society, and certainly in Jeju, also wield a great deal of power in matters of the household.
And so, to an outsider, this can look like economic equality. The diving women once represented a primary occupation of Jeju, their history stretching back approximately 2000 years. While it is very difficult and dangerous work, these women of Jeju nevertheless have historically enjoyed a good deal of economic equality and even superiority to men.
This, however, does not represent true equality.
Aside from the labor collectives, Jeju women have not yet attained substantial positions of leadership within the society. Indeed, even within those collectives known as “eochongye” which govern the work of fishermen and diving women and typically have more female than male members, fewer than 20% of the top leaders are female.
In Jeju society, there are also comparatively few female CEOs or top-level managers in corporations. In the several hundred villages throughout Jeju Island, women are also not made chiefs of the village councils.
In government, there are very few females in management positions. And no woman has ever actually been elected to public office, though Jeju legislation now provides for the appointment of five women to the Provincial Council.
Further, although Jeju women have historically contributed strongly to the economy of Jeju, today women throughout Korea are ranked in last position of OECD member nations for the status of women in business, in categories of gender-based wage gap, employment of women, and senior management positions held by women.
According to recent surveys, Jeju is ranked first for the greatest wage gap between men and women among Korea’s 16 provinces, and 10th for the percentage of women in council or public administration.
Therefore, even for such strong women, there is still a great deal of progress to be made before it can be said that any true measure of equality and economic sustainability has been achieved. In actuality, as Jeju’s economy has shifted away from agriculture and fishery to one of tourism and industry, the economic power of Jeju women has diminished.
In the past two years, according to regional statistics, the percentage of Jeju women in the workforce has actually decreased.
And the daughters, the next generation of Jeju women? As the element of hardship and adversity decreases in this increasingly affluent and modernized, technologically driven society, mothers express concern that their daughters want easy lives and lack the strength of their forebears.
(Part 2 to follow.)
[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]
Jeju Olle and the Korean psyche:
Healing minds and hearts
▲ There are over 400 kilometers of Olle walking trails to explore around the island. Photo courtesy Jeju Olle Trail.
Jeju Olle is helping to heal the minds of Korean people.
A post-conflict, post-colonial society with an ongoing threat of military aggression from the North and an unprecedented rate of development, many local experts and average citizens agree: Korea is in need of healing.
Indicators of a society under stress include Korea’s high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and divorce, accompanied by long working hours, extreme competitiveness in education and elsewhere and a rapid-pace lifestyle with little concept of leisure.
When a staff member at Jeju Olle was asked about the healing effects to be found in walking these trails, she began with, “I’d like to tell you my personal story.”
“I came to Jeju on the advice of a friend who was volunteering for Jeju Olle,” began Lee Su Jin, “at a time when I was physically exhausted, in poor health, and facing a very difficult situation in my life. I walked one trail each day for 10 days in a row,” she continued, “and by the end of that time, I felt truly healed.”
Lee subsequently changed her life, moved to Jeju, and began working with the Jeju Olle team.
“In the beginning of your walk,” she said, “you look at the beautiful scenery and interact with other people. After a while, your thoughts turn inward and you begin contemplating your own life. And finally, your mind empties completely, and you feel refreshed, and whole again.”
“In the end, you meet yourself,” she concluded.
Suh Myung Sook, the visionary who saw both the need for and the possibility of this remarkable trail system at a time (just a few years ago) when local officials were skeptical of Koreans’ interest in such an endeavor, has had much to say about the healing power of Jeju Olle.
Referring to Korea’s recent experience with war and poverty, she has said that Koreans react strongly to minor setbacks, compete with one another for resources and societal position, and “have forgotten how to relax” and handle challenges in a healthy manner.
“Our society is exhausted and stressed,” Suh relayed in a December 2010 conversation, reiterating her belief in a meeting just this week, “with a need for contemplation.”
The notion of healing can seem foreign to Koreans upon questioning. “We don’t typically use this concept” was conveyed by both Kim Jeyon and Han Youngsook, a sentiment echoed by others.
Speak of the “well-being” and “slow” movements which have emerged in the past few years, however, or of the need to relax or feel more comfortable or develop a leisure culture, and everyone agrees.
Korea, like many regions in Asia but perhaps even more so, suffered multiple traumas throughout the 20th century. During the 35-year period of occupation by Japanese armed forces, two successive world wars and numerous regional conflicts swirled around this tiny peninsular nation.
Immediately following Korea’s liberation, the country was thrust into several chaotic years during which it attempted to set up forms of governance never before experienced, resulting in numerous episodes of mass violence on Jeju and throughout the mainland, multiple casualties and wounded survivors, and a country divided. Soon thereafter, the civil war that ultimately involved outside players ensued.
Reeling from the years of this war during which Seoul was flattened three times, many children were orphaned, and poverty and starvation were the norm, Korea entered a period of nation-building which was to include a globally unprecedented rate of economic development. According to Ewha University international studies professor Brendan Howe, this too represents a profound stress.
“When post-conflict nations develop too rapidly,” Howe, a specialist in the area of human security, said at this year’s conference of Korea International Studies Association last month, “it may be good for their economies but it is a great hardship on their psyches.”
Indeed, the types of large-scale mental illness and social problems caused by the trauma that conflict – and colonization, instability, state-sanctioned violence, authoritarian regimes and repression, and extreme poverty – can bring are exhibited in Korea’s skyrocketing rates of suicide, divorce, depression and anxiety.
Intergenerational transmission is a well-acknowledged phenomenon in trauma research, indicating that the wounds borne by a society do not stop with the generation directly affected.
Enter Jeju Olle, and founder Suh.
“At first, the local officials scoffed at my idea,” Suh said in our conversation last year and reiterated this week. “Koreans typically travel like they live – in a rush, consuming but not enjoying, not contemplating. Local government thought that no one would want to travel to Jeju just to walk on nature trails.”
They were wrong. Jeju’s Olle trail system has been consistently voted the favored destination, according to surveys conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization. The estimated number of participants has grown from 3,000 the first year to more than 800,000 in 2010, a rate anticipated to have risen significantly again this year.
Suh’s idea has proven to be exactly what wounded and stressed Koreans needed.
The ultimate goal of trauma resolution, according to scholars of psychology and related fields, is the return of trust, hope, and caring relationships. The healing powers of nature, mindfulness meditation, social relationships as well as solitude, volunteerism, empowerment and community integration are all well documented.
Each of these elements can be found in the Jeju Olle experience.
The message of Jeju Olle, expressed in Suh’s “rules” for walking the trails, provides an apt metaphor for well-being:
Walk slowly. Go at your own pace, enjoying the scenery. Do what you’ve always wanted to do. Interact with the local community, “grasping their willing hands.” All routes are “the best.” Walk lightly on this earth, with the least amount of harm to it – or to others. Talk to strangers along the way. Go green. Follow ancient footpaths. Maintain safety.
It isn’t only the walkers who benefit, however; each person potentially carries this message home to his or her local community.
Jeju Olle is helping to heal the people of Jeju as well. Referring to the island’s “scars,” Suh has suggested that peace is an ultimate and universal value, reflected in these trails.
“Jeju is my ‘hometown,’” said Jeju National University instructor Han Youngsook, who has walked every Jeju Olle trail, some of them repeatedly. “Maybe visitors who walk for many days in a row feel more ‘healing power’ – but after walking an Olle trail, I always feel happy and pleased with myself, stronger and more energetic, refreshed, with a ‘clear mind’ and the recollection of many good memories from my childhood.”
Suh Myung Sook, in recent efforts to integrate Jeju Olle with other trail systems around the world, now dreams of Jeju as the center for Asian eco-tourism.
In war-torn Asia, this may be just what the doctor ordered.
In a brief follow-up interview Suh Myung Sook, founder of Jeju Olle, had this to add:
Regarding Jeju Olle and the healing of Korea’s wounded psyche, what are your thoughts?
I believe that it’s a very accurate and insightful analysis. In fact, from what I’ve heard, Jeju Olle is healing the minds of many. In reality, nature has a therapeutic effect, often called “eco-healing.” Yet, why are so many people experiencing and talking about a healing effect after walking Jeju Olle? It’s because Jeju’s nature is not too big, not too wide, not too vast, yet still very beautiful and lyrical. Standing in front of vast and magnificent forms of nature, people are not only in awe but also daunted and intimidated, reminded of human insignificance. However, Jeju’s soft oreums and wide ocean nurse humans, and nurture their minds. That’s why Jeju Olle is a healing trail.
There seems to have been a recent ‘paradigm shift’ in Korean thinking and being, due in part to Jeju Olle’s influence. Would you share your thoughts on this?
Following liberation, for decades Korea has gone through a compressed modernization process on top of its scars from the war. This has resulted in magnificent achievement and developments, never seen elsewhere in the world, yet it also gave Korea a “hurry hurry” (palli-palli) culture and competitive society. Koreans have even experienced their leisure activities in the same way: the faster the better, and the more the better. However, we recommend that people walk slowly, resting and playing on the Jeju Olle. In that way, people can truly enjoy [internal] conversation with themselves and with nature. That’s why Korean people say Jeju Olle has changed the tour and leisure culture of Korea, from car trips to walking trips, and from a “tour culture filled with dots” in which people move from Point A to Point B, to a “tour culture filled with lines” in which people enjoy the process.
I and many others consider you a visionary, recognizing what Korean people needed when others couldn’t see it — and finding a way to make it a reality. How do you feel about this?
I’m a little shy to be called a visionary. However, in my journalist background, for 20~30 years I lived the most typical Korean life, chasing after success and developing my career at a rapid pace. As a result, I was physically and mentally exhausted. And in order to reflect and to heal myself, I quit my job and left for the Camino de Santiago [trail in Spain]. On the trail, I thought about making a trail in my own hometown, and my wish became reality with much help and support of so many people around me. In the sense that I once felt the pain that all Koreans share, and tried hard to find a solution in the midst of it, it could be a matter of “one who experienced [healing] earlier” or “the one to put [this dream] into action.”