Thousands of young S. Koreans leaving cities for rural idyll

September 28, 2015
Kim Min-young, a former mobile engineer at a large conglomerate in Seoul, waters his blackcurrants in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. (Courtesy of Park Chang-hee)

Kim Min-young, a former mobile engineer at a large conglomerate in Seoul, waters his blackcurrants in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province.
(Courtesy of Park Chang-hee)

By Chung Ah-young

Park Chang-hee, 31, and her husband Kim Min-young, 36, moved to a small rural village in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in April. To start a new life there, the couple quit their jobs which they had kept for some 10 years in Seoul. Her husband was an aspiring mobile engineer at a large conglomerate while she had a stable job at a doctors’ association.

“My husband and I rarely spent time together because we came home from work late at night,” Park said. “One day, we just pictured what we would be like in our old age. We realized the picture was not what we wanted to have,” she said.

Park said that they didn’t want to pursue the same goal as everybody else’s such as promotion to higher positions through fierce competition. So the couple just packed up and never looked back.

Instead of working in the affluent neighborhoods of Seoul, Kim picks up a shovel and works on the farm every day.

They now cultivate blackcurrants together, which are known to have health benefits as they are rich in antioxidants. “It is our new challenge to succeed in growing blackcurrants. They are rare in Korea, so we want to popularize them,” she said.

The couple is one of a growing number of young people who are turning their eyes to the countryside. They are leaving the cities for various reasons such as health, relaxation or lack of jobs. But they pursue a common goal: “living like humans.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, a large number of young people flocked to the cities from rural areas, seeking job opportunities created by rapid industrialization.

But as the overcrowded cities now have a deteriorating quality of life, rural lives are emerging as one of the attractive options for urban dwellers, particularly senior citizens after retirement. Now the trend is gaining popularity among young people.

According to statistics, a total of 18,864 people left the cities and settled in rural areas last year. Of them, 5,129, or 27.2 percent, were young people in their 30s, much more than 2,239 in their 40s and 3,160 in their 60s.

Park said that the couple was lucky because Kim’s mother already lived there raising cows and vegetables on her farm.

“My mother-in-law really helped us settle here. We were lucky. It might not be easy for strangers to settle in a new place. So we want to help others to live in a rural village by giving them an opportunity to experience rural life for six months or one year in the near future,” she said.

Their incomes have halved but she said that the advantages cannot be calculated. Whenever she got stressed at her previous job, she went shopping or to skin clinics to relax, which ended up being costly.

“Here I don’t have to spend money to refresh because I am living without stress!” she said.

However, Park advised other young people who plan to move to the countryside to decide it after fully experiencing rural life.

“I am really satisfied with my life change here. But there are many young people who returned to the cities after failing to adapt to rural life. So if you want to, think twice,” she said.

As Park said, some young people’s attempt to move to the countryside ends up with failure. Yoo Jung-sang, 37, has recently moved back to Seoul after farming in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province for a couple of years. Now he is back in his former job as a bus driver.

“I thought farming would be easy to deal with because my father is a farmer and I am familiar with his work. But the reality was different,” he said.

“I couldn’t endure the financial difficulty because the farming was not as lucrative as I expected. After all, I realized that I was not the kind of person who loves rural life,” he said.

The local municipalities said that some young people experience difficulty getting along with their neighbors.

“In many cases, they just close their doors and never open their minds to their neighbors,” a local county official in South Chungcheong Province said.

He said that some young people move here, dreaming of making big money with rare agricultural products.

“Most of them move back to the cities after being disappointed with the reality. Farming is not a fantasy,” he said.