The future of Korea’s rural towns

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The future of Korea’s rural towns

I was recently taken on a trip by a friend to a tiny village nestled in the mountains near Kumsan, South Chungcheong. We drove along winding roads lined with pine trees for some time until we found ourselves standing in front of a cluster of modest houses built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These wooden houses lining the ridge of a mountain were not well-maintained. Rusted pipes and broken windows were visible between the thick underbrush and vines that threatened to swallow them. But even more striking than the state of the disrepair of the buildings, was the age of the villagers. Villagers in their 70s helped those in their 80s and 90s with their groceries and cleaning because there simply was not anyone younger around. The lack of proper maintenance was because cleaning was too strenuous a task for them.

We had come face to face with the grim result of Korea’s low birth rate and the exodus of people from the countryside into Korea’s cities and urban areas.

But I started to see things a bit differently once I sat down in the living room of my friend’s home and enjoyed a glass of wine. The house he had purchased and rehabilitated had delightful proportions. He had restored the interior lovingly, polishing the wood moldings and filling its small rooms with antique furniture. I was reminded immediately of the homes in the south of France where I had stayed in the summers as a boy.

It was at that moment that the scales fell from my eyes. I could not sense the tremendous potential of this village when I first arrived because all I saw was the tragic aging of the rural population. Now I realized that the superannuated Korean countryside is a phenomenon with a clear time limit. A profoundly different countryside was visible on the horizon. Some 10 years or so from now, rural towns like this will have passed beyond the superannuated phase and a new wave of residents moving in could make the countryside demographically younger than the cities will be at that time.

These small villages could become tremendously appealing places in which organic farmers, artisans, artists and others come together to create new communities and develop an innovative mixed economy. Moreover, the next generation of biotechnology and nanotechnology will not require the same massive infrastructure, and so there may be creative ways to weave advanced research and development into the rural community without disrupting its original flow. Perhaps it will be possible for Korea to both return to its agricultural roots and also move forward into the future.

To realize that potential, however, certain steps must be taken from the beginning. First and foremost, we must avoid development strategies that involve high-rise buildings and highways. Automobiles are a technology of the past that has no place in the village of the future. In fact, these villages will have appeal precisely because they are so well integrated with the environment in a sustainable manner and not easily accessible.

Rural villages should determine their own development internally and there should never be an incentive to tear down a small wooden home to build something bigger from concrete. Just as it is true for the most popular tourist sites in France or Italy, maintaining the past is essential for the future.

Moreover, the villages will be increasingly multicultural in nature, providing a place for people from around the world to come and experiment with a new approach to rural life that takes the best of the traditional ecological community and marries it with elements of an advanced technological society.

Finally, it is critical that we anticipate the changing nature of tourism as we plan for the future of rural Korea. Currently, tourism often takes the form of Chinese tourists crowding into department stores and duty-free shops in Gangnam, and following set courses riding in air-conditioned buses. But there are already signs that Chinese tourists are growing far more sophisticated, searching for an authentic Korean culture.

In the future, tourists will be drawn to rural regions because of their historic ambiance, their subtle landscapes and their distinct cuisines. A local product prepared with exquisite attention to detail will have much more appeal for the Chinese tourist of the future than lobsters or steaks. Rather than casinos and glitzy bars, tourists will want to enjoy a rustic, but refined environment. Time relaxing in a luxury version of the traditional jjimjilbang (saunas), and riding a horse over the fields and between hanok (traditional Korean houses) - these will be the great draw.

And that tourism will increasingly take the form of “sustainable tourism,” which can move us beyond the overly commercialized tourism that can damage communities.

Rather than have people visit a village as anonymous visitors with no connections to the community and chose it based only on a whim, long-term relations can be fostered through exchanges with communities and families so visiting tourists have personal, long-term ties to those villages and return year after year.

The tourists will know the residents of the village, love the unique food and feel at home when they visit. Such relationships, encouraged by community exchanges, will mean that tourists come back even if transportation is inconvenient and accommodations modest. The personal ties to a living village that produces crops and handicrafts will be the real draw of tourism in the future.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

by Emanuel Pastreich

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