MUNGYEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - A year ago, South Korean executive Chung Man-gyoo spent weekdays driving his Hyundai Grandeur sedan through the jammed streets of Seoul to his suburban office. At weekends he drove it to the golf course.
Now, the 53-year old fills the rear seat of the same black car with tools and fertilizer for his one-acre farm in the rural east of the country. His golf clubs lie unused except when his wife swings them to chase stray cats away from their house.
“I don’t miss life in the city at all,” said Chung, who used to work for an electronics company that supplied components to Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.
One of the growing number of South Koreans moving back to the countryside, Chung lives in Mungyeong, a small farming town in the eastern hills, where it takes an hour by car to get to the nearest train station.
“My wife misses the pizza delivery sometimes,” joked Chung, as he sat on his porch in a short-sleeved shirt, sipping juice made from the berry bushes he now tends.
“I now wake up in the morning with pleasure. I also have more time to be with my wife and talk with her. Our relationship has never been closer.”
The Asian Development Bank estimates the urban population across Asia will rise by 1.1 billion people by 2030 to account for 55 percent of the region’s total population, up from 40 percent in 2005. South Korea is a notable exception.
Large numbers of people migrated to Korean cities in the 1970s and 1980s as the country industrialized and job opportunities grew quickly. Their children got access to education, and then stayed on in the cities.
As South Korea made the leap from poverty to rich nation status in a generation, it turned into Asia’s most urbanized country, apart from city states like Singapore. More than half its 50 million people live in Seoul and its surrounds.
The capital has eight times the population density of New York City and three times that of Tokyo.
But according to government statistics, 10,503 families left Korean cities in 2011 to take up farming, more than double the number in 2010. For many, the constant need to compete for jobs, promotion and space in the city was just not worth it.
“Every day, I woke up, went to work and then drank with friends and co-workers. I began asking myself ‘what am I doing’,” said Yoon Woo Jin, 32, who quit his real estate job a month ago and plans to move to the countryside with his wife.
Korea’s activist government, which, hand in hand with big business, drove the rapid industrialization of the 1970s to create what is now the world’s 13th largest economy, wants to breathe life back into rural communities.
“We plan to increase the number of households moving back to 20,000 by providing support in the form of tax benefits and financial aid,” Agriculture Minister Suh Kyu-young said recently.
The ministry says people want to move “to live a life worthy of human dignity” in a country where the average worker puts in 2,200 hours year, the highest in the developed world, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Yoon, the former real estate company employee, was one of 52 people aged between 26 and 60 who attended a recent government-backed class in Seoul run by a voluntary body called Refarm, where professors and those who have made a successful transition teach the next generation of hopefuls.
The government has touted the success of some of those who have opted for country life, dubbing farming a “Blue Ocean” of potential and wealth, where incomes in excess of 100 million won ($88,600) a year can be made.
One such success story is Suh Jeong-deok, a former head researcher for Hanwha Chemical Corp, whose earnings place him in the top 1.42 percent of farm incomes, based on government data.
But it was ill-health and a hyper-competitive school system, that sees even pre-school children packed into cram schools in a bid to get a head start, that made Suh, the father of two teenage girls, opt out.
Around 72 percent of elementary, middle and high-school students have extra tutoring, according to Statistics Korea. Stress and the country’s “exam hell” have made suicide the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24, claiming 13 lives out of every 100,000, government data shows.
“My wife used to push our children in elementary school,” said 49-year-old Suh, who has been farming cucumbers for the past three years. “Instead of forcing our children to reach our expectations, we decided to lower our bar.”
CHOOSING “VOLUNTARY POVERTY”
The downside of leaving the city? Farm incomes are generally markedly lower, averaging 32 million won a year, according to government data, against the average city income of 42 million won.
Many farming families rely on government handouts to survive, with agricultural subsidies accounting for 45 percent of farmer’s incomes, according to the OECD, more than double paid to the cosseted farmers of the European Union.
“Our students believe in ‘voluntary poverty’, meaning that one must sacrifice wealth in order to be closer to nature,” said Park Yong bum, the head of Refarm.
The last time Koreans moved back to the countryside in similar numbers to today was during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, as thousands lost their jobs and looked to their hometowns for support.
However, they flocked back to the cities and factories as soon as the crisis was over and industrial Korea started to boom again.
This time it looks to be different. A report by the Korea Rural Economics Institute said only 7 percent of those who went to the countryside said they were unhappy with farm life, despite the lower incomes.
Kim Jeong Seop, a researcher at the institute, says many of the farms being taken up by the former city dwellers are small, and perhaps uneconomic, in a country where a typical rice farmer needs at least 6.6 hectares to pull in the kind of income levels seen in the city.
Just 7.4 percent of those migrating to the countryside own three hectares or more, Kim said, adding that life will become more difficult as Korea liberalizes its agricultural imports.
The country has already signed a series of free trade agreements with the United States and European Union and others are due to follow.
“It’s going to be harder to make a living from farming, and our government is encouraging people to go farm. The government is sending contradictory signals,” he said.
Chung, the berry farmer, used to earn around 90 million won every year in the city. His income as a farmer last year was about 20 million.
But he said it was worth it.
“If you want to make a lot of money, you should stay in the city,” he said. “You have to leave your greed behind.”
($1 = 1,129 Korean won)
Editing by David Chance and Raju Gopalakrishnan