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[Weekender] Chasing a rural dream

In much of the developed world, retirees dream of escaping the city and settling down in the countryside where the air is cleaner, and life is quieter and simpler.

In South Korea’s hyper-competitive and fast-changing society, many mid-career professionals, too, fancy a rural life. 

(Bloomberg)
(Bloomberg)

This younger group is choosing rurality not to retire, but to have a more fulfilling working life in a healthier environment away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Many are drawn by the rural way of living and being able to reconnect with nature, but one major factor is also the newfound interest in agriculture as a promising industry of the future.

“The population migration from urban to rural areas started to occur in meaningful numbers in Korea in around 2006 and has since been accelerating,” says Kim Kwi-yeong, the director of the Gwinong Gwichon Support Center, a government-run center to support urbanites who are considering settling down in the countryside.

The center, established in 2012, provides classes, consultation sessions and field trips to help them to prepare for the rural life. Its programs drew nearly 18,000 people last year, she said.

Statistics vary on how many Koreans actually swap urban convenience for a life close to nature. But the Agriculture Ministry’s data shows that nearly 10 percent of South Korea’s 3.56 million rural population are newcomers as of last year.

Some experts predict that in the next five years or so, they will account for nearly 40 percent.

Retiring baby boomers -- now in their 60s -- are the main force behind the move, while those in their 30s and 40s are a significant minority, accounting for about 30 percent of the total.

But it is these younger people that many agricultural experts and government officials pin high hopes on to reinvigorate waning rural economies and communities and bring innovations to the country’s farming sector.

For this reason, rural governments have rolled up their sleeves to attract trendy, young and aspiring farmers.

Buyeo in South Chungcheong Province earlier this year opened a “smart farming” town equipped with cutting-edge Internet of Things technologies and is wooing urbanites with various support packages to relocate there.

In this race, North Gyeongsang Province is a front-runner, reporting a population growth of 3,600 annually.

Yet, realistic and thorough preparations are essential for successful settlement in rural areas, experts say.

“Farming is never to be looked down on, and it is actually like running a business -- only more difficult as the environment is not full of help as it is in the cities,” said Kim.

A former solider and now four-year farmer, Yeom Deok-gi, says one must be ready, to some degree, to let go of the material life to be able to truly enjoy the beauty of rural living.

“For me, (despite meager incomes in the first few years,) the quality of living has clearly improved,” he said. 

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)
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