Peace Corps Revisit to Korea

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Cheju-do, Korea (photo from

Last week I traveled to Korea as a guest of the Korean government, which has invited Peace Corps volunteers back to Korea to thank and honor them.  My wife, Sue Ann Allen, was a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV), teaching English at a girl’s middle school on Cheju-do, an island about the size of Oahu 35 kilometers off the south coast of the Korean mainland.

Korea is, of course, an incredibly dynamic economy, and the contrast for Sue Ann was mind-boggling.  When she lived there, Korea was a rural country struggling to recover from 50 years of often brutal Japanese occupation and the devastation of the Korean War and internal civil conflict.  In Cheju City, many families used outhouses and chamber pots and dumped the waste in streams.   Korea today is an incredibly wired land of bullet trains and prosperity.  We stayed at a hotel with Japanese style toilets that are so complicated that another PCV called us to ask how to flush.  Peace Corps was in Korea from 1966 to 1981; now Korea sponsors its own version of Peace Corps.  There were four espresso stands within a hundred feet of our hotel in Seoul.  Korea implemented national health insurance over a twelve year period between 1977 and 1989, and now enjoys greater longevity than the United States (while spending less per capita on health care).

We visited a Museum about ‘traditional life’ – and found that the exhibits came from the 1970’s.

Korea today is also a society entering other transitions.  It is moving from a focus on industrialization to a new focus on sustainability.  Bukhansan National Park near Seoul is reportedly the most visited national park in the world; the Cheonggyecheon stream, daylighted in 2005 in an extraordinary act of environmental restoration, runs nearly 6 km through downtown Seoul, and is filled with walkers; Sue Ann’s former host, now 70 years old, recently completed his 128th marathon.  When I hiked Halla-san, the volcanic peak that formed Cheju Island, about 12 miles and 4000 feet elevation gain and loss up one side and down another, there were hundreds of Koreans on the trails.

Middle class Koreans feel the same anxiety about their economic future that middle class Americans do.  Korea has also gone through a major change away from traditional male-female gender roles.  Many women are deciding not to marry, and Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

It was interesting to observe Korea’s political culture.  The Mayor of Daejeon, our sister city, was a few minutes late to our meeting – his aides told me that he had stopped to do his hourly Twitter feed.  Seoul was holding a special election for Mayor when we were there – the former Mayor had gotten in a fight with the City Council over a project that the Council favored and the Mayor opposed; the Council put it on the ballot; the Mayor lost – and resigned.

Sue Ann’s former students at the girl’s middle school hosted the first part of our trip.  They are now professionals, ranging from successful businesswomen to one of Korea’s leading radical feminist anthropologists.  One thing that has not changed in Korea is the respect for teachers.  It was really moving to see how grateful they are to her.  Most of them use English in their work, and it was her teaching that got them started with it.  They refused to let us pay for anything, including our flights to Cheju from Seoul or the hotel they put us up in.  One of them met us at the airport, flew down to Cheju with us, and then escorted us back to Seoul.  Another flew in from Japan just to see her.  For four days, they wouldn’t let her out of their sight!

I spent a day in our sister city of Daejeon, met the Mayor and Council leaders, and visited Seattle Park (named in honor of the sister city relationship) and some historic sites.  I was treated royally:  a staff person picked me up at the hotel in Seoul and rode the bullet train down and back with me (an hour’s journey at 100+ miles per hour!), and we had a translator, driver, and the Mayor’s foreign relations staff person accompanying me for the time in Daejeon.  A picture of me with the Mayor was in the newspaper the next day.

The most extraordinary reunion experience happened when we visited Udo.  Udo (“Cow Island”) is a small (2 square miles) island a short distance from the east coast of Cheju.  Cheju and Udo are famous for their traditional ‘diving women’ (haenyo), who gather shellfish from the ocean floor.  The haenyo gather shellfish by diving without equipment to depths of up to 20 meters, staying underwater for as long as two minutes.  The current American Ambassador (a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea in the 80’s) was on the front page of Korean newspapers when she did a brief dive with the women a couple of years ago – and came up holding an octopus they had handed to her underwater.

Sue Ann visited Udo several times, and took photos and did short dives with haenyo.  At that time, there were an estimated 30,000 haenyo around Cheju.  She traveled to Udo on a small motorboat – it was an isolated island with no cars or modern infrastructure.  Sue Ann does not remember seeing any other person in the boat who was not a native of Udo, but she loved the island and asked to extend her Peace Corps service for another year to work there.  The Peace Corps refused to do this, because Udo was ‘too isolated and remote’ –

When we came to Cheju on our revisit, Sue Ann really wanted to go back to Udo.  Times have changed.  The haenyo are now a designated ‘national treasure’.  An estimated 5000 still dive, but there are many easier ways to make a living.  Cheju has numerous destination resorts, and is especially popular with Chinese tourists.

Udo is still a beautiful island, with only a few hundred permanent residents, but it is now served by a small car ferry every half hour and tour boats every 20 minutes or so.  We went with three of Sue Ann’s Korean friends, and had lunch at a nice seafood restaurant.  On the way back to the ferry to return to Cheju, we stopped at the Ha Ha Ho Ho espresso stand… and here is where the story gets beyond belief.

Chatting with the owner of the Ha Ha Ho Ho, we found that his family was from Udo.   We asked if any of the women were haenyo.  He replied that his grandmother knew many haenyo.  Sue Ann had digitalized and printed the pictures she took in 1970-71, and she showed them to him.  He said he was sure his grandmother could identify some of them – and she lived only a few doors away, so he took the pictures to her house.  When she returned with him, she was very excited and told us that two haenyo in the photographs still lived nearby (a third had died while diving).  Our friends went off to fetch them.

When they returned a few minutes later, the excitement and hugs flew around, and they talked for almost an hour.  The two women are 83 and 78 (the 78 year old is still diving!).  They were amazed and delighted to see pictures from 40 years ago.  When we finally had to leave, Sue Ann gave them the prints – and we promised to email the digital versions to the grandson so they could be shared around the island.