Rural population: 19 percent. (Compared to 17 percent in Great Britain and 79 percent in Ethiopia). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Korea has traditionally been a very rural society. It didn’t begin industrializing until the Japanese arrived in 1910. Before that time the urban population was only three percent. Farmers raised rice, barely, sorghum and other crops as their staples and got much of their protein from the sea. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Since the Korean War, South Korea has changed from 75 percent rural to 18 percent rural. Between the 1960s and the 1990s more than 10 million South Korean families moved from the countryside to the cities. As the rural population of Korea has gotten smaller, the proportion of old people to young people has gotten larger as young people move to the cities in search of better education and jobs.

Common sights in rural South Korea a couple decades ago included village men with A-shaped wooden jige backpacks; noodles and squids hanging from clothesline; red peppers drying on blankets in streets; men with big tumors on their necks; and rice paddies plowed with oxen and planted by hand. Korean farmers raise chicken and pigs but they prefer fish and squid. To scare away crop-raiding birds, small boys in thatched roof platforms used noise makers made from rags and ropes.

Koreans in northeastern China live villages set a few miles apart from each other and ranging in size from about a dozen households to several scores. The houses are built of wood with low-eaved tile or thatched roofs. They are heated by flues running under a raised platform in the main rooms, which serves as a bed and also a place to sit on. Shoes are removed before entering the house. [Source: |]

see Agriculture

Life in a Korean Village

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Until the late twentieth century, most Koreans lived in rural areas and supported themselves through an economy based on agriculture. Their seasons and holidays were related to the agricultural calendar and their lives were tied to the weather and the success or failure of their crops. Though the proportion of the population living in villages and cities has been reversed in the process of economic modernization, most Koreans still feel closely tied to their ancestral homes in the countryside and many have relatives still living in ancestral villages. Many Korean villages still preserve some of the rich traditions of agricultural society, but modernization has brought fundamental changes in the way rural people live and work. The traditions too are fast disappearing. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“In order to dramatize the transformations that have overtaken Korean village life in recent generations we will focus on a real place in south central Korea named "Poksu," which can be translated in English as "Blessed Longevity." Poksu is actually the name of a myon, or district, one of several that make up the country (kun) of Kumsan in South Ch'ungch'ong Province. The village that lies at the heart of Poksu District is Kongnam-ni, or "South Valley Hamlet." It sits at the junction of two steep valleys, and since Korean roads normally follow valleys, South Valley Hamlet exists at the fork where two main roads leading from southwestern Korea diverge to go around opposite sides of a mountain complex to the city of Taejon.

“Kongnam-ni contains the Poksu District (myon) headquarters led by an elected chief (myonjang) who before democratization was formerly appointed by the government in Seoul with the advice of the provincial governor in Taejon City. It also boasts the district's central post office, a place that a generation ago was the district's only communications hub with its only public telephone.

Growth of Korean Village

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Under Japanese colonial rule in the early part of the century, Kongnam-ni became the headquarters of the Poksu District, a territory that stretches for about thirty miles along a system of valleys connected to a central stream that flows northward to the Kum River. At that time, the post office was also the district bank, offering postal savings accounts in a system introduced by the Japanese when they ruled Korea earlier in the century. It had a warehouse for fertilizer and seed that was stocked by the National Association of Agricultural Cooperatives and was dispensed by association agents on periodic swings through the county. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“And it had an elementary school in a Japanese building left by the colonial authorities in 1945, a drugstore, a wineshop, and a candy and cigarette store at the fork in the road that sold tickets for the buses that Suyong-ni, one of the main villages in Poksu District. came through Poksu going both directions at three-hour intervals throughout the day.

“Until the advent of mass communications, Kongnam-ni—and indeed, all of Poksu District and Kumsan County—was isolated in the mountains growing rice, cotton, tobacco, and its prime specialty crop, the medicinal root ginseng. In fact, Poksu and Kongnam-ni were so remote that the only entertainment was provided by the villagers themselves. Most evenings in the wineshop the drinkers entertained each other with ballads and jokes. Seasonal festivals were occasions for more organized entertainment in the form of farmers' music (nongak) that sometimes featured itinerant dancers and musicians. The residents of Kongnam-ni—the ones who could read—were exposed to mass media only through newspapers that came in the mail a day or two late. Beyond that there were only the movies that came to town in the form of a truck driven by a small crew who would hang a huge white sheet, crank up a generator, and enthrall the entire population of the village with worn prints of second-run films. The generator was necessary because Poksu District got no electricity at all before 1967.

Coming of Electricity to a Korean Village

Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: A village up the road from Poksu had managed to squeeze a little current from a generator connected to a waterwheel, but the contraption broke down so often that the people rarely bothered to run it. Needless to say, the lack of electricity meant that there were no appliances that used electric motors. There was no refrigeration and no radio or television, and whatever light there was at night came from candles and kerosene lanterns. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The biggest thing that happened to Poksu District in the late 1960s was the arrival of an electric wire that was strung by the government-owned power utility along the road from Kumsan town. The electricity was unreliable and often lasted only a few hours a day. The power was expensive and to save money people tried to economize at first by running fluorescent tubes through holes in their walls so that they could cast a dim light in two rooms at once.

“By the end of 1968, however, the current was steady enough to enable people to make some changes in the way they lived. Once they got used to having electricity in the evening they started staying up past their normal bedtimes reading, talking, eating, drinking, and arguing. They also invested in the cheap transistor radios that were being made by Korea's fledgling electronics firms. The village rang with the sound of competing households blaring music, comedies, and soap operas. One family made it a point to turn up the volume on religious programs from CBS, the country's Christian network.

Markets, Infrastructure and Commerce in a Korean Village

Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Every five days Kongnam-ni hosted the "five-day market," a version of the traditional rural bazaar where villagers from surrounding hamlets brought things to sell and trade. The "market" was an area of mats spread out on the ground with tubs of fruit and vegetables, boxes of nails and simple tools, implements like plowshares and ox yokes, used-clothing, and occasionally a live animal such as a dog, pig, or even a calf. The hardware merchants normally traveled with the market from village to village, while the produce and used clothing sellers were local people. Several people did specialized work on a to-order basis: a carpenter who could make furniture and could also fix tin roofs; a watch repairman who also fixed bicycles and small motors; and a shoemaker. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The hamlet had no restaurant as such, but the lady who ran the wineshop would cook a meal if a traveler came by or the drinkers got hungry. The jobs connected with these aspects of Kongnam-ni were mostly part-time jobs that supplemented people's incomes from farming the valley's main crops: rice, barley, and tobacco. The people who performed them were from several different extended families, most of whom cheerfully identified themselves as "sangnom," or humble commoners.

“The Poksu District headquarters, office, school, post office, bus stop, and market all identified Kongnam-ni as a center. So did the fact that the county health authorities used part of the district headquarters building as a clinic every two weeks, administering immunizations and seeing patients. The drugstore at the fork in the road was the only other medical facility for the entire district of 10,000 people. The nearest clinic was an hour bus ride away in the county seat, Kumsan. If a person got hurt or suddenly ran a fever, it was the job of the drugstore operator—who was selftaught and not licensed as a pharmacist—to diagnose the disease and prescribe the right drugs. If someone was badly injured and needed an ambulance, someone would have to use the post office telephone to call a taxi. This would arrive in about an hour to take the patient away to Taejon City or Kumsan town, either one of which was more than an hour away. The roads that forked at Kongnam-ni were unpaved and rough in the best of weather, but in snow or mud they were slippery and occasionally impassable. The one that went straight north to Taejon lacked bridges. Even a moderate rain would close it and force a trip on the other road, which had bridges and a tunnel through the mountains but was twelve miles longer.

Homes in a Korean Village

Clark wrote: “Their homes had mud walls papered inside with newspapers and posters, and heavy wooden pillars held up the roof structures, which were covered in thatch or, in rare cases, galvanized metal. It was a poor village and the residents had few valuable possessions. Even so, most of the dwellings were surrounded by traditional walls made of mud and stones, topped with long swatches of woven thatch or, more rarely, tiles. The walls were subject to erosion whenever it rained and constantly had to be repaired. Gaps were common and the walls obviously were more symbolic than useful. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The finest home in Kongnam-ni—and Poksu's top historical attraction—was the family residence of the Cho family across the stream from the main village square. The Cho family house itself was typical of a yangban home, having been improved and altered over many decades by succeeding generations. Part of the house was in Japanese-style, with sliding glass doors opening onto a polished wood hallway along the south side that was designed to be warmed by the winter sun (but was something of an oven in summer).

“Inside, however, the rooms were Korean-style with heated floors and elegant wooden cabinets. One of the cabinets contained the family treasury. One treasure was a quiver that was said to have held the arrows that Cho Hon shot at the Japanese during the Battle of Kumsan. Another was a commendation certificate written in Cho Hon's memory by his students after the battle. Others included a bound treatise by Cho Hon himself and several books that were said to have belonged to him, including editions of the ancient Book of Mencius and the historical text Tongguk t'onggam (Precious Mirror of the Eastern Land). There was also the all-important Cho family chokpo, the genealogy that documented Cho Hon's own lineage and the generations descended from him down to Cho Inse's late father.

History of the Village Patriarchal Family

Clark wrote: In the 1960s the most important house in Kongnam-ni “bore on its compound gatepost the nameplate of Cho Inse, the thirteenth-generation lineal descendant of the entire county's most famous hero, Cho Hon (1544-92), who gave his life in battle during the Japanese invasion of 1592. Cho Hon was an example of a special kind of traditional Korean military defender—a civilian who undertook to rally local village men against invaders when the national army proved unable to stop the enemy. In 1592, when the Japanese invaded Korea as part of their audacious plan to conquer the mainland, they defeated the Korean Royal Army rather easily at first and the king and his court actually had to abandon the capital city of Seoul and flee northward to the Manchurian border for safety. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Defense of the peninsula and its communities was left to brave individuals who organized spontaneous citizen militia forces known as "righteous armies" (Korean: uibyong). The "righteous armies" used whatever weapons they could find to defend their families and property against the invading Japanese. Sometimes they won and sometimes they lost, but the righteous armies of the 1590s have always been revered for their patriotism and sacrifice. The scholar-turned-commander Cho Hon won several important battles before confronting the invaders in the Battle of Kumsan together with troops raised by the monk Yonggyu Taesa and k\ow-yangban Ko Chebong. The battle, in the third week of the eighth lunar month of the year 1592, was very bloody and both sides suffered heavy casualties. In the end, however, the Japanese prevailed.

“Cho Hon and his company were among the so-called Seven Hundred Martyrs who died in the battle and were buried together just north of Kumsan town. The site is now a national shrine with a large stone tablet on which the story of the battle is inscribed in elegant script. Poksu District is about fifteen miles from the shrine, but in the 1960s the residents of Kongnam-ni were proud to tell their children and grandchildren the story of the Seven Hundred Martyrs. They liked to point out that Cho Hon's spirit still resided in the ancestral tablet that was lovingly kept by the Cho family inside the shrine whose tile roof could be seen inside the Cho family compound across the stream. The return of various city-dwelling members of the Cho family to the ancestral home for memorial chesa ceremonies was a normal feature of holidays like the Ch'usok autumn festival for all of Kongnam-ni.

“The Chos lost most of their land through government-sponsored land reform and other sales, but they continued to maintain a few acres adjacent to the house in Kongnam-ni. Here they grew barley and tobacco like other Poksu farm families, as well as cotton and fruit in an orchard, which helped the entire operation turn a yearly profit. Cho Hon's descendant Cho Inse himself did not actually live in the compound but was in Seoul, where he had a job with the Korean National Railroad. The household comprised Cho's wife and children and his widowed mother, along with a young cousin from a mountain village who boarded at the house while attending Poksu's elementary school. In the kitchen wing of the house there lived a family of servants who spent their days tending the vegetable garden inside the Cho family compound and doing the cleaning, cooking, and shopping for the household. The head of the servant family was a man descended from generations of Cho family "retainers," permanent household staff who traditionally tended the family fields and did the manual labor necessary to maintain the establishment.

Nearby Towns and Connections to Rest of Korea

Clark wrote: “Though Poksu and Kongnam-ni were remote in many respects, they were nevertheless part of an integrated market structure. Like the famous Standard Marketing Areas in China described by G. William Skinner,1 the Korean agricultural economy was organized in levels. The bottom level was a small village surrounded by fields whose inhabitants converged on a place like Kongnam-ni for their five-day market supplies, cigarettes, medicines, and bus rides to the city. The next level above South Valley was the county seat, in this case Kumsan, where there were county offices, a government clinic, a county police headquarters, an area office for the agricultural cooperative, a cultural center, and a middle school as well as an elementary school. Whereas Poksu at the district level might hope for four hours a day of electricity, Kumsan had eighteen hours. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“At the Kumsan level there were also stores, a permanent open-air market, barbershops, coffee houses, inns, Chinese as well as Korean restaurants, a bus station, taxi service, an auto repair shop, an electronics store, a bathhouse with hot water two days a week, and a hall that showed movies on weekends. From the county level a person could travel an hour on a reserved-seat bus to the next level at Taejon City, the provincial capital where there was electricity around the clock. Taejon had the governor's orifices and two train stations that linked the entire province with the main lines to Seoul, Pusan, and the southwest part of the country, luxurious inns, a Western-style hotel with air-conditioning, and a hot springs resort. It had high schools and colleges, two hospitals, department stores, movie theaters, a very large permanent market, car dealerships, Japanese and Western restaurants, commercial banks, and bathhouses that operated every day of the week.

“And from Taejon the railroad went to the highest level of the national economy in Seoul, which was connected through myriad banks, industries, and government agencies to the world beyond Korea's shores. For the people of Kongnam-ni, a trip to Kumsan was a monthly occasion and a trip to Taejon might happen twice a year. Most of the adult villagers had been to Seoul or Pusan at least once, but not necessarily by their own free will. Many remembered serving in the army or having to flee the invading North Korean forces. Some of the older residents had worked in Japan during the colonial period and had traveled quite a bit, though often in circumstances they preferred to forget.

Saemaul Movement Comes to Kongnam-ni

Clark wrote: “If regular bus service was the biggest improvement in the 1950s and electrification was the most significant change in the 1960s, the most revolutionary influence in the life of Kongnam-ni in the 1970s was the success of the government's Saemaul (or "New Community") Movement. The Saemaul Movement was President Park Chung-hee's response to the criticism that his administration was paying too much attention to industrialization at the expense of the farm sector, which was continuing to languish in poverty. The Saemaul Movement therefore was a national push to improve living standards at the village level. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Under the slogan "Diligence, Self-Help, and Cooperation" the government targeted many areas at once. For example, after having developed a national cement industry in the 1960s, the Park administration was able to give 300 bags of cement to each of more than 35,000 villages on the condition that it be used for community purposes such as irrigation, sanitation, and construction of buildings for common use.

“To improve transportation the government built more than 65,000 small bridges to make weather roads out of the tracks that flooded like the one leading from Poksu to Taejon. The layers of rice straw that thatched millions of Korean farmhouses were economically replaced with roofs made of cement tiles that did not rot in the rainy season, house innumerable rats and insects, and require laborious re-thatching every autumn. The movement also augmented the nation's rudimentary public health program by assigning government-paid doctors to small towns and villages, building health centers in places like Kongnam-ni, extending health education classes to villagers, and increasing the number of family planning and communicable disease control workers. Since much of the countryside was afflicted by waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, the government pushed the construction of safe water supplies.

Agriculture Improvements and Training Brought by Saemaul Movement

Clark wrote: “The Saemaul Movement funded the digging of new wells that were away from the polluted water tables of the villages themselves and ran pipes to communal faucets and, eventually, into individual homes. Partly as a public health measure but mostly to boost production, the government invested in the production of two kinds of farm chemicals: pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer. Though the pesticides created pollution problems of their own, they cut down on the crop losses that were due to insects and rodents. The fertilizer, which was distributed at subsidized rates through the National Agricultural Cooperative system, replaced the manure that had been used through the 1960s and enabled farmers to continue growing two crops a year safely in many fields without completely depleting the nutrients in the soil. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The country's industrial development also spun off new products that proved essential for rising living standards in the countryside. The new plastics industry made vinyl sheeting available to farmers to use in two ways. They spread the vinyl on fields to hold in moisture and control pests while the plants themselves grew up through holes punched in the plastic, and they built greenhouses to grow high-profit vegetables during the colder weeks of early spring and late autumn.

“Another type of industrial product was the small gasoline engine that was adapted for use as a "mechanical ox," a gas tractor that could be hooked up to a plow, or hitched to a wagon, or connected to a pump, performing a variety of tasks more cheaply and efficiently than animal power. The mechanization process also led to the spread of more sophisticated machines to harvest and thresh the grain crops. One machine even took trays of new rice seedlings and transplanted them in wet rice paddies row by row, ending the ordeal of having the villagers line up in water up to their calves and bend over to push the seedlings into the mud one by one. But the most important agricultural innovation of all was the development of a new kind of high-yield rice that dramatically increased the country's annual grain output and enabled the growing population to retain rice as its staple food. Increased production meant rising farm income without a rise in prices in the market. The new rice strain was accompanied by increased efficiency as Saemaul Movement workers showed farmers how to share resources through coordinated planning and cooperative work.

“The government set up training institutes and cycled thousands of farmers through classes on organization and leadership. The central training institute in Suwon started training in 1972 with 150 village leaders from across the country and by 1988 was training more than 20,000 a year. Koreans regard the Saemaul Movement as a great success. The cooperative elements of the movement were translated into urban projects as well. Though critics complained that the training institutes were dispensing a kind of government propaganda that limited the vision of Korea's future to one industrial-style model, the exposure of professors, businessmen, judges, and religious leaders to the cooperative ethic of the Saemaul Movement seems to have contributed something to an evident national determination to work together to overcome long odds. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Without the government-led development of community spirit, one wonders, for example, if Korea's spectacular success in reforestation would have been possible. On a daily basis one notices improvements in community consideration: respect for people ahead in a line for tickets or taxis, an end to spitting on the sidewalk, less shoving, less littering, and slightly better driving. High in the mountains of central Korea, the economic modernization of South Korea and the Saemaul Movement brought revolutionary changes to Kongnam-ni. The roads that fork in the center of the hamlet were paved, and more than a few households own private cars, a thing that could not have been imagined in the 1970s.

Modernization of a Korean Village

Clark wrote: “The houses have dependable electricity around the clock and almost all have color televisions, refrigerators, fans to keep them cool in summer, and rice cookers to produce perfect pearly rice for breakfast. No longer do housewives have to get up at 4:30 to start the fire. Kongnam-ni has a health center with a doctor and keeps records on the families in the Poksu District to guarantee the continued high child immunization rate, among other things. The Japanese-built wooden school building has been torn down and replaced with a new educational complex that brings a middle school education to the children of Poksu District. The paved roads and frequent bus service make it possible for older children to ride fifty minutes on the old "long" road to high school, and there is a junior college in the county seat of Kumsan town. The literacy rate is nearing the national statistical standard of 93 percent. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“One of the most significant changes in the Poksu District in the past thirty years has been a steady decline in population. This is due not only to the falling birth rate but to a relentless migration of the people from the farms to the cities. The migration is driven by a quest for better education, because the area's villagers remain convinced that their children must attend school in Seoul, or at least the provincial capital of Taejon, in order to get good jobs after graduation. This has always been the case in Korea, but the difference in recent times is that rising farm incomes have enabled even average farmers to send children to the city for schooling. In the city the children live with relatives or rent rooms, and eventually they grow reluctant to return to the life of the village.

“The efficiencies of the Saemaul Movement have enabled farm families to get along with a smaller labor pool, and the better wages available in the cities dictate that families separate. South Korea may be tending in the direction of postwar Japan, where women and older, retired men do the farmwork while the younger men work in industrial or whitecollar urban jobs. In Kongnam-ni, some of the out-migration has been overseas. The idea of opportunities abroad is not new.

Korean Village’s Exposure to the Outside World

Clark wrote: “During the Japanese colonial period, many Poksu District residents went to Japan to work, more or less voluntarily. A few served in the Japanese army during World War II. In 1969, the district lost its communicable disease control worker when she was recruited to work as a nurse in Germany. She was one of many Koreans who were encouraged by the Seoul government to work overseas, "exporting" their skills in order to earn foreign currency so that Korea could buy much needed imported technology. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“At the same time, Korea was contributing two army divisions to the American-led effort to defend South Vietnam from a Communist takeover, with the United States paying all the expenses in U.S. dollars. Korean workers helped build support facilities for the war under contracts from the United States to large Korean construction companies. The same companies later won contracts in the Middle East and Korean technicians and workers earned money on those projects as well. Several young men from Poksu served in Vietnam and saved enough money to help their younger siblings go to school in the city.

“All across South Korea there are now farm households where family members have worked abroad and may have acquired passing fluency in another language. The Korean companies that have invested in building plants in China have provided a major boost to foreign language learning in Korea, which was formerly limited to English. Most Koreans, even in the remotest villages, have relatives living in the United States, Canada, Brazil, or Europe. Two generations ago, their families might have lived with three or even four generations under one roof. Now there are many older parents whose children have emigrated and who have never seen their grandchildren. Despite all the changes that have come to Kongnam-ni, the Cho family still maintains the ancestral home across the stream. The family shrine is intact, maintained with the help of the Poksu District office as a "cultural property." Family members come and go, most reliably on national holidays when memorial services are called for. Cho Inse's aged mother, now deceased, went abroad for the first time in the 1980s. Her trip to California was made possible by the almost hourly flights between Seoul and Los Angeles International Airport. She went to visit her son, Cho Hon's thirteenth-generation descendant Cho Inse. He and his wife live in Los Angeles with their son, and their grandchildren are normal American teenagers.

South Korea’s Empty Villages and Towns

Reporting from the rural South Korean town of Nogok, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times” “The post office pulled up stakes and moved away years ago. The police station is long gone. And so is the bank. Over the years, the residents of Nogok have watched almost every major institution disappear, victims of an exodus of young people that is emptying villages and towns across much of rural South Korea. Nogok, which lies 110 miles east of Seoul, is typical of many rural South Korean towns. An idyllic cluster of 16 hamlets, it is nestled in a series of narrow valleys surrounded by lush hills. In the hills and valleys, farmers tend crops of potatoes, beans and red peppers; in town, persimmon and apricot trees grow in the well-tended gardens of every home. But the town also bears scars from the country’s rapid industrialization, a great transformation that places like Nogok helped unleash. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2015]

“Like countless other parents in the aftermath of the Korean War, the slash-and-burn farmers of Nogok saw education as the ticket for their children to escape lives of backbreaking work and poverty. Every morning, they would send them to study at Nogok Primary, with some of the children walking as many as five miles each way. Later, the children joined streams of rural youths migrating to cities to seek higher education or factory jobs from the 1970s and onward, providing cheap and disciplined work forces to fuel the economy.

“This exodus also overlapped with a government birth-control campaign that started in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s. In Nogok, married men reporting for mandatory army reserve training would receive condoms or exemptions from serving if they agreed to free vasectomies. Across South Korea, birthrates dropped from 4.5 children per woman in 1970 to 1.2 last year, one of the lowest rates in the world. Over the same period, the number of primary school students decreased by more than half to 2.7 million.

“Today, many villages look like ghost towns, with houses crumbling and once-bustling schools standing in weedy ruins, windowpanes cracked or full of cobwebs. In Nogok, the only store in the town center was closed during a recent visit in the afternoon. There are only old, useless people left here,” said Baek Gye-hyun, 55, a farmer here. “If we come across a young woman with a child, we stop and stare as if they were an endangered species.”

“Most South Koreans now live in the tall apartment buildings that are spread out like dominoes across South Korean cities, but many still bemoan the shrinking of rural communities. The slow death of rural schools is particularly poignant in a culture that cherishes hometown and school ties. Even decades after leaving rural hometowns, many urban migrants stay connected through “dongchanghoe,” or school alumni associations, whose bonds are so strong that politicians often use them as vote-gathering tools.

Empty South Korean Village Loses Its Primary School

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Nogok is about to lose an important symbol of youthful vitality: Next spring, the local primary school will close when its only student, a 12-year-old named Chung Jeong-su, graduates. “Villages around here have no more children to send,” the school’s only teacher, Lee Sung-kyun, said recently, looking over an empty, weed-filled playground surrounded by old cherry trees. “Young people have all gone to cities to find work and get married there.” Many children from Nogok Primary, for instance, moved on to work as welders and painters at shipyards on the southern coast of South Korea, earning wages their fathers could hardly have imagined as they toiled on their hardscrabble plots in the hills around Nogok. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2015]

“Hardest hit by this demographic shift were rural towns like Nogok and their public schools. Since 1982, nearly 3,600 schools have closed across South Korea, most of them in rural towns, for lack of children. In 1960, Nogok had 5,387 people, 2,054 of them age 12 or younger. In 2010, the last year the government conducted a general census, the town reported a population of 615. Only 17 were 14 or younger.

“Jeong-su, the Nogok Primary student, is the youngest child, and his 52-year-old father, Chung Eui-jin, the youngest married man in their village of Hawolsan-ri, which is part of Nogok. The school has not had a first grader since Jeong-su enrolled there five years ago. After two sixth graders graduated this spring, he was the only student left. “It’s cool to have all the school to myself,” said Jeong-su, a shy boy with glasses, who said he wanted to become a veterinarian.

“When asked what he would remember the most from his school days, he mentioned playing table tennis with his teacher, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee said the personalized attention was obviously good for Jeong-su. But he said he felt bad that the boy had no classmates with whom to share school memories later in life. “Until last year, when we had several students, we used to play mini-soccer,” he said, referring to a stripped down version of the game for small numbers of players. “Now, that has become impossible.” At recess, Mr. Lee said, he and Jeong-su now spent their time throwing paper airplanes.

““It’s a sorry sight,” said Mr. Baek, a graduate of Nogok Primary, pointing at the weeds in the school’s playground. “When I was a student here, 300 children were crawling all over there, giving weeds no time to grow.” In 1990, for the 60th anniversary of the school, graduates pooled money to build statues of an elephant and a lion, as well as a monument that urges students to nurture their “dreams into the future, into the world.” But by 1999, the school had lost so many students it became a branch of another school, Geundeok Primary School, in the nearby town. Today, the monument stands forlorn, overlooking a basketball hoop, slides and soccer goal posts rusting in the school field.

“Inside the two-story concrete school building, it is oddly silent. The wooden floors creaked when Jeong-su, Mr. Lee and the school’s janitor, Lee Dong-min, walked in on a recent school day. Walls lined with crayon drawings and origami created by former students bore witness to a busier past. Gathering dust in empty classrooms were big-screen TVs, table tennis tables, computers, a drum set, a piano, telescopes, anatomical charts, book-filled shelves, and desks and chairs, all empty. Painting and guitar instructors visit the school twice a week to give Jeong-su lessons. A yellow van operated by the local educational office delivers lunch for the boy and his teacher.

“It cost more than 100 million won (about $87,000) a year to run the school, Mr. Lee said. “You can’t say all the excess is justified by one student,” said Kim Bok-hyun, 71, a Nogok villager. Mr. Kim used to sell pencils, gum and toys to Nogok Primary students from a shop in front of the school. But he closed up years ago because of a lack of customers. He now spends most of his time sitting on a chair on the roadside, watching the few buses and trucks that pass by.

“Some rural towns started campaigns to save their schools, hiring buses to transport children from neighboring towns and even offering free housing for couples moving in with school-age children. Similar efforts did not work for Nogok, said Kim Jong-sik, 58, a village chief in the area. “There is no one coming in to live here, only people moving out,” said Mr. Kim, who said all his own children lived in cities. “With all the best schools, jobs and shopping malls concentrated in big cities, their attraction for young people has become irreversible.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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