People leaving Seoul in droves, moving to the countryside
by Guido Alberto Casanova

According to official government data, migration to the countryside, especially by young couples, grew by 5.6 per cent in 2021, the highest rate in a decade. Koreans call this trend "kwichon",  caused by high city housing prices, pandemic-related telework, and growing frustration with the ruthless competition in the labour market that has led some to choose farming.


Seoul (AsiaNews) – South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. With only 0.8 children per woman, it ranks well behind other countries, such as Japan, where the fertility rate is 1.3.

What is more, half of South Korea’s population lives in Seoul and its region, a sign of the decline of the country’s rural areas.

More recently, however, a counter tendency appears to be developing, raising hope for such areas hitherto apparently resigned to a bleak fate.

In fact, more and more young South Koreans are leaving the cities for the countryside. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs released data this summer showing that 515,000 people (378,000 households) left the cities for the countryside in 2021, up by 5.6 per cent over the previous year.  

Since the government began keeping statistics, this is the largest increase in a decade. According to the data, while many seniors are moving out after a life working in the city, more and more young people are also giving up on South Korea’s hectic urban life.

The trend has become extremely important. As The Economist notes, under half of the households involved are couples under 40.

The back-to-village movement, kwichon in Korean, is driven by several factors.

One is housing prices in the country’s cities; for example, the average price of a flat in Seoul has more than doubled since 2017.

Another factor is the new work model introduced during the pandemic and the strong push towards digitalisation, driving hundreds of thousands of young people to find a new home away from the chaos of the city.

Others, frustrated by South Korea’s ruthless labour market, have given up on finding a well-paid office job and turned instead to farming, helped by the government seeking to reverse rural depopulation.

There is no shortage of initiatives in this direction and some have often proved to be particularly smart.

Instead of spending money (often unsuccessfully) to get people to relocate to depopulated rural areas, new programmes are designed to establish new relationships between the urban population and the countryside.

In Gyeongsang-nam province for example, one project seeks to teach young urbanites how to prepare healthy foods typical of Korean cuisine, by bringing them to rural Hamyang County, where elderly village women pass on their knowledge.

Such synergy is one way to breathe new life in rural areas.