The South Korean capital, Seoul, has embodied the country’s spirit of progress and development for decades.
The megalopolis is one of the richest capitals in the world and the epicenter of powerful and innovative technological industries that have conquered the world.
Seoul’s magnetism means that its metropolitan area alone is home to nearly 25 million people – roughly half of South Korea’s population.
But a growing number of South Koreans are taking up a new adventure: the kwichon.
“Kwichon literally means ‘return to the countryside,'” explains Su Min Hwang, editor of the BBC’s Korean Service.
In recent years, the government of South Korea has watched with concern the depopulation of rural areas, with people increasingly moving to the capital and its metropolitan area. Therefore, several measures were taken to motivate people to return to the countryside.
But apparently the Kwichon is now enjoying its big moment, with record numbers of young South Koreans migrating to the countryside.
The pandemic as a driver
In 2021, journalist Julie Yoonnyung Lee of the BBC’s Korean Service visited the small town of Suncheon in South Jeolla Province.
There, she met 11-year-old Yun Sihu and her mother Oh Sujung. At the door of the house, there was a large plantation of potatoes, corn, eggplants, peppers and lettuce. But Lee says their lives were very different not so long ago.
Sihu and his family lived on the ninth floor of a 19-story building in a high-traffic zone. Even before the confinements caused by the covid-19 pandemic, Sihu and his brother had already invented a way to play baseball inside the apartment, due to the lack of outdoor space.
Since the family moved to Suncheon, the city’s skyscrapers have been replaced by mountains, the noise of traffic by the clucking of chickens, and the family’s tiny apartment by a traditional wooden house with a curved roof.
“Now, I put one foot out of the house and the whole land is a space for games. I water the peppers, eggplants and lettuces every day”, says Sihu.
After they moved to the countryside, Sihu and his brother started playing baseball outdoors, in suitable conditions — Photo: BBC
With more than half of the country’s population living in metropolitan Seoul, many people feared that Covid-19 could quickly spread through the capital’s densely populated apartment blocks.
As soon as the virus arrived, schools were closed. For Sihu, the isolation was too strong. Her mental health was weakened by being stuck with online learning, unable to find her friends.
Seeing her like this, for her mother, was devastating. She then took the opportunity to put into action an idea she had dreamed of for years: leaving the city in search of a new life in the countryside. And hundreds of thousands of South Koreans are doing the same.
Returning to the countryside and agriculture is a trend that has been gaining strength in recent years, due to the pandemic’s blow and the need to seek alternative lifestyles.
A 2021 survey by the National Bureau of Statistics and South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs indicated that 515,434 people left Seoul that year and moved to farming or fishing villages – 4.2% more than in the previous year.
Specifically with regard to youth, 235,904 people under 30 years of age returned to rural areas. They represent 45.8% of the total and this is the highest number ever recorded in the country.
“Recently, many young people in Seoul ended their careers and, unhappy with their work and their prospects, decided to move to try their luck in the countryside. And it seems that many are enjoying it”, explains Ramón Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations and expert in Korean and East Asian Affairs from King’s College London.
Dissatisfaction with work joins other reasons for grievances in other major cities around the world, such as high housing prices, urban stress and strong competition.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Government statistics indicate that this is the biggest cause of mortality among young people and adolescents.
Psychologists attribute these levels of depression and suicide to the intense pressure placed on young people to succeed academically. But more and more young people consider this success unattainable, as the excess of studies and the pace of the city consume their energies, without offering the expected reward.
In the second half of the 20th century, South Korea experienced decades of rapid economic growth and progress.
For many years, before the split between North and South Korea in the 1940s and the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, the vast majority of Koreans were engaged in agriculture.
But starting in the 1960s, a massive migration from the countryside to the city began – largely to escape poverty. This urban explosion was one of the big factors for economic growth and the creation of wealth and opportunities.
It so happens that, nowadays, many young people face a series of obstacles to take advantage of these opportunities, compared to past generations. In this context, it is not surprising that families with teenagers, like Sihu, and other young professionals, abandon their work and experience rural life, returning to the traditional environment of many Koreans in the past.
Impulse for rural life
Several South Korean governments have tried to find a way to resolve the population and economic imbalance between metropolitan Seoul and the countryside.
For decades, a lack of investment in sectors such as agriculture and fishing has left the South Korean countryside in economic decline.
“The rural area was becoming depopulated because young people and, above all, women moved to the city in search of opportunities”, according to Pacheco.
Allied to this, South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, which is a severe blow to the rural environment.
The rural exodus worsened to the point of threatening food security. Farmers were mostly elderly, and many began to retire or die without young people to replace them. Therefore, the authorities provide facilities for citizens who want to move to the countryside.
“The government encourages training and educational programs about life in the countryside. There are programs to learn how to harvest and some local governments offer economic assistance and access to housing”, says Pacheco Pardo.
Indirect support, such as greater investment in infrastructure, has also been boosting the good momentum of the kwichon.
“In a small country, the possibility of cheap transport thanks to the new infrastructure helps more people make this life change”, says the professor.
Effects on the new generation
The rise of the kwichon is a relatively recent phenomenon. Therefore, it seems that it is still too early to assess its effects and the results of government aid.
But some advances are already beginning to emerge. Before the pandemic, for example, many rural schools were on the verge of closing. And during the visit to Suncheon in 2021, the BBC interviewed Sihu’s school teacher Shin Youngmi.
She had previously taught in the Seoul metropolitan area. After his experience in the field, Shin believes that rural schools can provide a real opportunity for Koreans to cope with the high levels of stress and depression among young people.
To help rural schools, the authorities even offered subsidies to families willing to relocate from Seoul. That year, Sihu’s school welcomed seven new students, and teacher Shin says the entire community has benefited from its new residents.
It remains to be seen whether the young generations of rural migrants will decide to stay amidst nature or whether they will be drawn back to the hustle and bustle of the big city.
* With additional reporting by Julie Yoonnyung Lee of the BBC’s Korean Service.