- Jose Carlos Cueto*
- BBC News World
For decades, Seoul embodied the South Korean spirit of progress and development.
This megacity occupies the first positions of wealth among all the world capitals and is the epicenter of powerful innovative technological industries that have conquered the world.
Its magnetism has meant that the Seoul metropolitan area alone, with almost 25 million inhabitants, is home to almost half of all South Koreans.
However, there is a growing number of South Koreans who indulge in a new adventure: the kwichón.
“Kwichon literally means ‘back to the countryside,'” explains Su Min Hwang, editor of the BBC’s Korean service.
In recent years, the South Korean government has noted with concern the depopulation of rural areas to the detriment of the capital and its metropolitan area. Various strategies have been launched to motivate people to return to the field.
But it seems that it is now that thekwichón live your great momentwith a record of young South Koreans giving themselves over to rural life.
The pandemic as a driver
In 2021, journalist Julie Yoonnyung Lee from the BBC’s Korean service visited the small town of Suncheon in South Jeolla Province.
There he met 11-year-old Yun Sihu and his mother Oh Sujung. In front of the door of the house they had a large vegetable patch with potatoes, corn, eggplants, peppers and lettuce.
Lee tells that before Their lives couldn’t be more different.
Sihu and his family lived on the ninth floor of a 19-story building nestled in a high-traffic area. Even before the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns hit, Sihu and his brother managed to play baseball inside the apartment due to the lack of outdoor space.
Since moving to Suncheon, their view of skyscrapers has been replaced by mountains, traffic noise by cackling chickens, and their family’s compact apartment by a traditional wooden house with a curved roof.
“Now I step outside and everything is a playground. I water the peppers, the eggplants and the lettuce every day,” Sihu said.
The change caused by the pandemic
With more than half of the country’s population living in greater Seoul, many feared that Covid would spread rapidly through the city’s densely packed apartment blocks.
When the virus hit, schools closed first. For Siu, the isolation was too much. His mental health was weakened by getting caught up with learning online and not being able to see his friends.
It was devastating for his mother to see him like this. So she jumped at the chance to pursue an idea she had fantasized about for years: leave the city in search of a new life in the country.
Hundreds of thousands of other South Koreans are doing the same.
Returning to the countryside and agriculture is a trend that has gained strength in recent years after the pandemic hit and due to the need to seek alternative lifestyles.
According to a 2021 survey by the National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, a total of 515,434 people left Seoul that year and they moved to rural or fishing villages, 4.2% more than the previous year.
In particular, 235,904 people under the age of 30 returned to rural areas, 45.8% of the total and figure recordsince records exist.
“Recently, many young people in Seoul are graduating and, unhappy with their job and prospects, decide to move to the countryside to try their luck. And it seems that many are liking it“, Ramón Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations and specialist in Korean and East Asian affairs at King’s College London, explains to BBC Mundo.
Discontent with work joins other grievances in other big cities around the world, such as high housing prices, urban stress and a lot of competition.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and this is the leading cause of death in adolescents and young people, according to government statistics. Psychologists have attributed these levels of depression and suicide to the intense pressure placed on young people to achieve academic success.
Successes that, on the other hand, a growing number of young people see as unattainable due to how excessive work and the pace of the city consume them without giving them the rewards they expect.
Return to past habitats
In the second half of the 20th century, South Korea experienced decades of prosperity and frenetic economic growth. For many years, and before the partition of Korea into North and South in the 1940s and the subsequent civil war between 1950-1953, a The vast majority of Koreans were engaged in agriculture.
But from the 1960s there was a massive migration from the countryside to the city, with many escaping poverty. This urban explosion was one of the great contributors to economic growth and the creation of opportunity and wealth.
Many young people today, however, see a very big gap to achieve those opportunities with respect to past generations.
In this context, it is not surprising that families with teenagers like Sihu and other young professionals leave their jobs, try the rural experience and return to the traditional habitat of many Koreans of the past.
Promotion of rural life
Different governments have sought ways to balance the population and economic imbalance between Greater Seoul and rural areas.
For decades, a lack of sufficient investment in industries such as agriculture and fishing has left the South Korean countryside in economic decline.
“Rural areas were running out of population precisely because young people and especially women were moving to the city in search of opportunities,” says Pacheco.
South Korea also has aa of the lowest rates of births of the worlda statistic that hits rural areas hard.
The depopulation of the countryside worsened to the point of threatening food security. Many farmers, most of them older people, began to retire or die without young people who could replace them.
That is why the authorities put facilities in the hands of their citizens who want to move.
“The government promotes training and educational programs on life in the countryside. There are programs to learn to harvest and some local governments offer economic aid and access to housing,” says the King’s College expert.
Indirect aid such as greater investment in infrastructure are also motivating the good moment of the kwichón.
“In a small country, the fact that people can move cheaply thanks to new infrastructure helps more people consider this change of life,” says Pacheco.
Effects on the new generation
Given the relatively recent boom that the kwichónit still seems too early to assess its effects and the results of government aid.
Before the pandemic, for example, many rural schools were on the verge of closing.
When the BBC visited Suncheon in 2021, they interviewed Shin Youngmi, the teacher at Sihu’s school.
Youngmi had previously taught in greater Seoul and, after her experience in the countryside, believes that rural schools can offer a real opportunity for Koreans to deal with the high levels of stress and depression of youth.
To help rural schools, the authorities even offered subsidies to families willing to leave Seoul.
That year, the Sihu school had seven new students and Youngmi, the teacher, says that the whole community has benefited from the new inhabitants.
It remains to be seen if these young generations of rural migrants choose to stay in the wild or if they will be drawn back to the bustle of the city.
*additional report of Julie Yoonnyung Leea reporter for the BBC’s Korean service.
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