Expanding Regional Flight: fleeing and flying from the province to Seoul

Development at the Saemangeum mudflat, where the World Scout Jamboree was hosted in the summer of 2023. Source: http://kfem.or.kr/

South Korea is in crisis. A demographic crisis. A crisis that has become so mundane that parallels are being drawn with the banality of North Korea. Many South Koreans are unaware of the rapidly ageing society. We talk about extinction, somyeol, but terms like “extinction of Korea” and “extinction of hope” are foreign to many of us. However, there is a case where the term “extinction” is familiar for many Koreans: “regional extinction”. Despite this, it seems we have become desensitised to it already. Instead of empathy, desperation, understanding, and sadness, the attitude that many people have towards “regional extinction” is discrimination, cynicism, helplessness, indifference, and annoyance. The very use of the term is perhaps indicative of the current attitudes towards extinction.

A rational system of the wealthy and the poor.

A significant reason behind the demographic crisis in Korea starts with the disappearance of the provinces. Young people feel they have to come to Seoul to have a chance – education, love, employment, fashion, information, everything they could want is in Seoul. However, living in Seoul is expensive, because there are constant demands – expensive housing and living costs that are unlikely to fall since competition is fierce. To catch their breath, many have to give up marriage and children. When the national total birth rate was 0.79, Seoul’s was 0.59. In the second quarter of 2023, the national birth rate declined to 0.70.

There are few good jobs in rural areas meaning that rural universities tend to be uncompetitive. The government and media constantly mention university evaluations and competitive comparisons but these comparisons do not work. Imagine for a second taking a shovelful of low-ranked universities and putting them in Seoul. Only one thing would happen to their low employment and admission rate. 

The reason there are few good jobs in the provinces is because most companies are based in Seoul. Therefore, businesses do not relocate to the provinces because there’s no one there to work for them. The metropolitan epicentre of Korea always tells the provinces to specialise, but quality of life needs a more holistic approach. You simply cannot sustain many people living in a place where there are only small manufacturing factories and domestic tourism. Children and the elderly cannot live where there are no schools and hospitals, nor can their families. Schools disappear because of the lack of students and hospitals are unable to  find doctors. All the while, the capital repeats: “Why are you trying to compete with Seoul? Do what the provinces do best!” Yet, the people who repeat such statements never come to live in the provinces. The “balanced development through specialisation” model is fundamentally unsustainable.

The competitiveness of metropolitan areas comes from networks where people and information come together and circulate quickly. This is made possible because of trains. Trains run from the DMZ to Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do, and from the coast off Incheon to Chuncheon, Gangwon-do; their infrastructure was built with public expense. At first, the train lines were built to connect the cities but eventually cities started to form along the lines as well. Even now, the government is planning to build a metropolitan high-speed railway (GTX), which will inevitably raise the price of housing in the areas that lie along the line. Yet, in the provinces, there is no money even to expand the existing train services and tracks. They are not eligible to demand state funding. They are not able to scale the wall of “the preliminary feasibility study” that is required by the government. A rational system of the wealthy and the poor.

When the World Scout Jamboree ended and people started to blame the central government and Jeollabuk-do, sociologist Cho Hyung-geun wrote a courageous article. “The argument for protecting the tidal flats sounds like the overfed romanticism of Seoul’s middle class. I was shocked…. People living in the capital shouldn’t talk about the provinces as if they’re the only ones who benefit from them…. It’s easy to throw stones at Saemangeum. I threw one too. Yet, you have to be prepared to get hit as well.” And thus we have to look at regional airports, too.   

A particular form of regional criticism

Regional airports are the real deal and a great example of regional criticism. There’s nothing like an airport to criticise provincial vanity. The progressives problematise environmental destruction, the conservatives its profitability. At the end of the jamboree, the first airport to take a beating was Jeonbuk Saemangeum Airport. The government has slashed its 2024 budget by 500 billion won, and has in effect launched a complete re-review of the project. And what about Busan’s Gadeokdo New Airport? It is similar in appearance. Whereas Saemangeum Airport’s argument was based on the Jamboree, Gadeokdo is based on the Busan 2030 Expo. While the tidal flats of Cheonhye have been destroyed in the name of Saemangeum, Gadeokdo Airport will require the removal of an entire island.

In 2021, Shim Sang-jung, a member of parliament from Goyang, Gyeonggi-do, said: “it is estimated that carbon emissions from the aviation sector will increase by an additional 1.5 times if new airports are built and actively used. The only way for new airports not to become the enemy of the 2050 carbon neutrality vision is to dry chillies on the runways of the new airports (instead of using them as intended).” So, if new airports are not constructed, will carbon emissions decrease? Not at all. The ‘dirty little secret’ that many people in the metropolitan area do not realise is that even without the new airport, carbon emissions from aviation are still rising and will continue to do so. Incheon Airport currently has three runways and is building a fourth. As soon as the construction of the fourth runway is finished, the construction of the fifth is slated to begin.

The construction of the 4th runway at Incheon Airport is currently underway and is heralded as a national achievement. Source: Incheon International Airport Corporation

Here’s a quote from an article from one of the media outlets: “Incheon International Airport Corporation is carrying out for the fourth phase of the construction project, which includes the expansion of the second passenger terminal and the construction of the fourth runway, with an investment of 4.8 trillion won over seven years, aiming to complete it in October 2024. Upon completion of the fourth phase, Incheon Airport’s annual passenger capacity will increase from 77 million to 160 million, and it will be the first airport in the world to have two passenger terminals with a capacity of more than 50 million international passengers.”

When reading articles like this, there seems to be a lack of worry about carbon emissions; instead, a sense of pride enumerates. Gadeokdo New Airport is a major carbon emitter and has been stamped as an enemy of the earth – it simply is not Incheon Airport. It is difficult to conclusively determine which one will emit more carbon (it is Incheon Airport). Yet, no progressive politicians and climate activists are coming out in droves and holding sit-ins at the departure gate of Incheon Airport. This is Seoul. Seoul’s main airport should not be the main target of climate activism or carbon neutrality, right?

Regional Developmentalism 

Then what about rural areas? A simple answer presents itself to us: “’there is no demand in the countryside”. Gadeokdo New Airport has nothing to do with the still-unconfirmed Busan 2030 Expo. Gimhae Airport in Gyeongnam is already saturated. A simple question emerges: if so many people in the metropolitan area are travelling abroad, why assume that rural people do not? Prior to COVID-19, Gimhae Airport was the most cost-effective airport in Korea, with a surplus of more than 100 billion won per year, surpassing Gimpo Airport (67 billion won) and Jeju Airport (73 billion won). The number of passengers had already exceeded expectations and it was not uncommon to see queues for international flights stretching outside the airport. In Seoul, however, both liberals and conservatives were confidently chanting “dry chilli”.

It might be easy to argue that provincials then should take the trouble to travel to Incheon for the sake of carbon neutrality. They could, but this comes with a price. While Seoulites can take the subway to Incheon Airport, rurals cannot. About 5 million people from the southeast use Incheon Airport every year, and it costs 700 billion won a year to travel there. No tax money is paying for this. Yet, it is cheap and convenient for people in Seoul, due to all the tax money poured into the infrastructure; inconvenient and expensive for people in the countryside due to the absence of.

A digital rendering of the controversial Gadeokdo Airport, which has been a topic of discussion since 2002. Source: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport

But the logic behind the need for a new airport rather than an expansion of Gimhae lies elsewhere. People think Incheon Airport sits idle at night, but cargo planes are constantly flying in and out. There are no cargo planes at Gimhae Airport. There is a ‘curfew‘ (11pm-6am) where take-offs and landings are prohibited due to its proximity to the city centre – as do the other regional airports of Gimpo, Daegu, and Gwangju. During the day, passenger planes are also busy, so high-tech companies that need to fly their products cannot be based in the south. Even if the people and finance are there, there is a lack of solid logistics. And of course, infrastructure. During COVID-19, emergency medical supplies by plane could not be immediately received in the south. The cargo plane could not land and the airport did not have the adequate refrigeration systems to store them. 

A city of 50 million 

Does it have to be Gadeokdo? Of course not. But it is not that everyone in the province is so crazy about development eo ipso that they want to cut an entire island away. The focus on Gadeokdo is besides the point. You might want to argue that there is no need for an airport at all. That is a perfectly acceptable position to take, from both an environmental and developmentalist perspective. However, taking this position while talking about the provinces as being uncompetitive, that they do not attempt anything, and that the provincial universities and high-tech companies are the problem. It becomes nothing more than an argument for the movement of all 50 million Koreans to Seoul. 

No this all relates to a larger, structural issue. Bus terminals are closing, train stations are no longer stopped at, large areas are still without high-speed railway, or have no railway infrastructure at all.The population of the metropolitan area has surpassed 50%. The number of congressional districts in the capital area has increased by 24 in the last 20 years, while the number of regions in the entire country has decreased. South Korea’s regional imbalance has passed a critical point. Many influential people in politics, the economy, and the media are now born in the metropolitan area. Seoul is their hometown.

Is it possible to stop the extinction of the country without stopping the extinction of the regional provinces? We often see graphs of population growth and decline, but what about the population migration graph? What about the migration of the productive population? If the total national population decreases, will the population of the metropolitan area also decrease? What will the population pyramid of the metropolitan area look like? Is the metropolitan area really sustainable? Will South Korea still be sustainable? A true “Miracle on the Han River” may be necessary once more to save Korea from its self-induced demise.

About Bastiaan Flikweert 4 Articles
Born in the Netherlands, Bastiaan has been living back and forth between Korea and the Netherlands. He is currently pursuing a MA degree in Korean Studies after finishing his BA in History and Korean Studies at Erasmus University and Leiden University respectively. Truly in-between and culturally fluent, Bastiaan has been working on bridging the gap between East and West by writing and talking about complex social issues in various contexts, such as the Korean Embassy in the Netherlands and the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His current areas of interest are the intersection of nationalism and citizenship in the Korean context but with a broad interdisciplinary background and a comparative mindset, he hopes to inspire critical thinking about all that feels too comfortable.