Koreans like to jump on trends, many of which are fed by upbeat media coverage. One such trend is leaving the rat race in Seoul for a quieter life elsewhere. Jejudo Island has become the most popular destination because of its natural beauty and easy access to Seoul by air. The trickle started with retirees who could move easily, but has recently expanded to include younger people who quit their jobs in Seoul to make the move. What is going on?
The recent interest in Jejudo Island belies its troubled history. For much of Korean history, the island was left alone, allowing it to develop a unique culture that differed from that of the mainland. During the Japanese colonial period, a ferry to Osaka made it easy for people to move there to fill jobs in booming factories. In April 1948, an uprising against the American military government created a yearlong crisis that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The uprising forced about 40,000 people to move to Japan and most joined the large Jeju community in Osaka. The aftermath of the uprising ushered in a period of harsh repression and neglect.
Economic growth had lifted Koreans from poverty by the 1980s, and Jejudo Island began to develop as a tourist destination, mainly for honeymooning couples. Direct flights to Japan also brought increasing numbers of Japanese tourists. In 2006, Jejudo was turned into a “Special Autonomous Province” as part of an effort to attract foreign investment in the wake of the 1997 economic crisis. The rise of discount airlines in the 2000s caused airfares to drop, making it cheaper to go to Jejudo than to Busan. The Seoul-Jeju air route is now the busiest in the world, carrying more than 10 million passengers a year.
The recent boom in migration to Jejudo reflects interesting changes in Korean society. Many of the retirees have opened upscale guesthouses that offer travelers the comforts of Seoul. More recently, younger migrants have also jumped on the guesthouse bandwagon, but often with an upscale cafe. The same thing, of course, is happening in trendy neighborhoods in Seoul and picturesque places, such as Jeonju. The boom in cafes and guesthouses no doubt includes a fair amount of “irrational exuberance,” but it suggests that Koreans have enough disposable income to support this type of consumption. From the demand side, then, Koreans are willing to spend money to enjoy free time in a place with a “film-set” atmosphere.
The supply side is equally interesting. Until recently, retirees in Korea lived with their children and mainly helped with household chores. Life expectancies were shorter than today, making the length of retirement shorter. The idea of a long, independent retirement is new in Korea, and the current generation of retirees, many of whom are still in their 50s, is the first generation able to make the lifestyle choice of moving to a place like Jejudo Island.
Younger migrants are making the same lifestyle choice, but without the security of savings or a pension. This trend suggests that they are willing to take a certain degree of risk, which in turns suggests strong dissatisfaction with the status quo. Many Koreans in their 20s and 30s find organizations too rigid and hierarchical, and feel little attachment to such organizations. They see those in senior positions being forced out in their late 40s after years of hard work. Outside the workplace, the high cost of living, particularly housing, in Seoul leaves them feeling forever pinched.
The migration to Jejudo Island has much in common with earlier lifestyle migrations in other countries. In the 1990s, Okinawa and nearby islands became popular destinations for people in Tokyo who wanted to escape the stresses and costs of city life. In the U.S. during the 1960s, retiring to sunny places like Florida and Arizona started a population surge that continues to this day.
Recent trends in other countries offer insights into the future of Jejudo Island. Because lifestyle migration is largely detached from the local economy, the island must rely on a steady flow of visitors or steady flow of retirement income to support it. The aging population in Japan has reduced demand for domestic tourism, forcing the tourist industry to reach out to foreign tourists, but that has been difficult because Japan is expensive. In the U.S., “aging in place” is becoming popular as people increasingly value being close to family and having a network of friends. All this suggests that as soon as the demographic changes, lifestyle migration to Jejudo will force another wave of social change.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.