South Korea promotes island living to relieve urbanization pressure

South Korea has 3,300 islands but with a low birth rate, many of them are deserted with few or no residents.  63 islands are expected to become uninhibited by 2066.  Out of 463 inhabited islands, 66 islands have fewer than 10 people residing as of today.  The government now wants to make the islands more attractive to repopulate them in a bid to relieve mounting pressure of fast-paced urbanization in major cities.

According to this year’s figure from Korea Statistics, a woman is expected to give birth to 0.81 child.  The population started to decline for the first time in history last year, and it is forecasted to decline further still in the years ahead in both urban and countryside areas.  

So, with the double whammy of low birth rate and low take-up rate of moving to islands, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, inaugurated three months ago, is aiming for a balanced development.  President Yoon established a special committee to recommend policies to mitigate overpopulation in urban areas, especially the metropolitan area of Seoul, and to develop the islands into a viable option for people to move to. 

Kim Byong-joon, who previously served as the chief of this committee, said one of the goals was to cut down on bureaucracy and give more decision-making power to local government so that they can quickly react to ground sentiments and formulate specific policies to counter pain points.

“The incumbent government will strongly promote the decentralization of administrative power, for regional governments to make and implement development policies based on their local situations,” Kim said at the first-ever Korea Island Forum held at the Korea Press Center, Seoul, in May. “Besides decentralizing power, it’s also planning to make local governments more financially independent (from the central government),” he added.

Other plans for the rural areas included the revamp of educational systems at local universities to attract more high-tech companies and young students to relocate there, and the designation of exclusive industrial zones.

The government also will continue with the 4th Island Development Plan, first established by the Moon Jae-in administration in 2018, and scheduled to run till 2027, to create jobs, build more transport infrastructure and cultural facilities, and improve the quality of life in 370 islands. 

Kim Nam-hee, who leads the policy research department at the Korea Island Development Institute, pointed out at the Forum that the government’s island development plan can be improved further.  For example, there should be a central national department or agency, to be given full legal backing and power to enforce and implement the plan.  He also suggested to incorporate green and sustainable development and to link the island development plan to the Balanced Regional Development Plan. 

Lee Eung-gyu, president of the Korean Association of Islands, agreed that the plans should be green, sustainable and good for the environment.  This will appeal to the younger generation, who is relatively more passionate and involved in protecting the climate and environment.

“South Korea’s island development policies are too focused on the islands individually without taking a holistic and macro approach by looking at the development as part of an ecosystem,” Lee said.  

He added that there must also be continuity when administration changed, good governance, good collection of data to determine benchmark on which progress can be measured and a national agency to coordinate all the government’s efforts.

Photo credit: iStock/ undefined undefined. Daemyeonghang, Gimpo-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea.

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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