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Re-rooting

A village in Korea attempts to keep up with heavy migration

By STEVEN BOROWIEC | 1 March 2018

On the main street in Mugeuk, a mountainous village around 90 minutes from Seoul, there are two markets a few hundred metres apart. The older of the two, which has been around for over 100 years, is a traditional bazaar, a high-ceilinged labyrinth of stalls and restaurants selling Korean dishes and produce from nearby farms. It was the centre of village life for decades, but nowadays it is mostly quiet, open only one out of every five days.

Down the street is Asia Mart, a store in operation for the last 15 years, which caters primarily to the area’s growing population of migrant workers. Inside, there is a table with fruits from Southeast Asia, packets of instant Indian curry, shelves of Chinese grain liquor and canned fish with Russian language labels. Next to the store’s entrance is a table where customers can buy SIM cards and lottery tickets. When I visited on a crisp autumn afternoon last year, there was a near constant flow of migrants going in and out, buying cold fruit juice, cigarettes and snacks.

In recent years, the road that runs between the two markets has become an essential point of connection for the village economy, which relies on cheap foreign labour. In a few concrete buildings, there are agencies that work to dispatch labourers to farms, factories and construction sites in the surrounding countryside. On weekday mornings, men, mostly in their twenties and thirties, from countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, report at these offices hoping to be sent out for a day’s work. Mugeuk is one of many rural communities in South Korea that have shrunk in recent years, as young people leave to attend university and seek jobs in cities. Taking their place, along with several low-wage jobs in agriculture and manufacturing, is a wave of young men from poorer Asian countries who come to South Korea, often on non-renewable five-year visas. According to data put out by the South Korean government, the number of foreigners residing in the country more than tripled between 2006 and 2016. There are over 250,000 migrants in the country on visas for unskilled labour. They work low-wage jobs but enough to allow workers to save sums of money to buy land or put their children through school.

Shady Elsayed, a 31-year-old man from Egypt who has lived in Mugeuk for four years, volunteered to be my guide for a day as I traversed the village on foot. Elsayed grew up in Alexandria and spent his early adulthood in Dubai, where his father owns a printing business. He first came to South Korea in 2013, after an Egyptian friend told him it was an easy place to find work and make money. He told me that his first job here, welding at a factory that makes scaffolds for construction sites, paid only 900,000 South Korean won—a little over $800—per month. But now, with four years’ experience and basic Korean language skills, he earns three times that amount doing the same work at another factory, where according to Elsayed, the owners and managers are all South Koreans, and the workers are all from overseas. “They don’t hire Koreans because they ask for too much. They want high salaries, lots of time off. Foreign guys will work for less,” Elsayed told me while we sat on a patio outside a convenience store on the road between the two markets. “Most guys come here just to work. They might make two million won a month, and will send almost all of that home, just keeping maybe a hundred bucks to eat,” he said.

Those who live in Mugeuk spoke about the rapid changes introduced by the influx of migrants. Elsayed told me that during his four years in the village, the mentalities of the South Korean residents altered considerably. “When I first came here, people were shocked to see a foreigner on the street, but now, I don’t even think they notice, since there are so many.” Yang Yi-soon, a woman in her sixties, who has lived in Mugeuk her entire life and owns and operates Asia Mart with her son, agreed that the changes were palpable. “Many people have left,” she said. “In the past, we didn’t worry about much. Everyone had enough work, enough to eat, even though life was slow. Now life here moves much more quickly.”

Recent data show that not all South Koreans are warming to the larger numbers of outsiders. Data from a poll conducted in 2015 by Gallup Korea, a research company, found that 54 percent of its 1,500 respondents thought that foreign workers were not a good thing for the country—an increase from 49 percent in 1994. The South Korean government last year reduced migrant workers’ maximum stay period from 14 to 10 years, due in part to pressure from Korean unions who contend that migrants drive down wages for Korean workers. Yang Kee-ho, a professor of sociology at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, said that the South Korean government would need to improve its attempts at integrating migrants into society and should consider granting more foreign workers permanent residency. “Until now, the government’s multicultural policies have been almost like a fairy tale whereby foreigners are expected to somehow become culturally Korean,” Kee-ho told me over email last year. The more the policies are led by the central government, the more estranged the foreign populations will become from the mainstream. It would be better to have policies that are clearly defined and recognise the existence of non-Koreans within South Korea.”

Mugeuk, for its part, created an Assistance Centre for Foreigners, which occupies a second-floor space in the main road between the two markets. Inside, there are tables set up for Korean language classes and workshops where people learn to make rice cakes and other Korean foods. The director of the centre—Sophia Ko, a middle-aged South Korean woman—explained that it was intended to provide occasions for non-Koreans to interact with the locals. In addition to cooking and language classes, she also organises sports events, including basketball games for workers from the Philippines, cricket for Sri Lankans and soccer for Indonesians. “It used to be that people around here were scared when they saw foreigners,” Ko said. “We as Koreans need to change our culture and learn to better welcome outsiders.”

While many people in Mugeuk echoed Ko’s sentiments, one person seemed unperturbed by the changing landscape of the village. Down the road from the centre, Lee Jung-bok, an 87-year-old widower, who retired from a construction company over a decade ago, sat on the stairs in front of Asia Mart. “What do you think about how the village is changing?” I asked. “What’s there to think about?” he responded. “It’s just the way it is. This is still just a country village.”

Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul. He tweets as @steven_borowiec.

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