|▲ Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
The proverb “Send any horse to Jeju Island, and send any human to Seoul” was inspired 400 years ago by Lee Hang-bok (1556~1618), a Joseon-era prime minister. Lee said:
“Due to a recent lack of supplies, a good horse can’t be fed properly in Seoul and should be raised in outlands to produce an excellent horse. A 'seonbi' (Joseon scholar) doesn’t study with diligence in outlands, and needs to be brought up in Seoul to produce a talented child.”
This saying suggests that excellent horses are raised on Jeju’s famed wide meadows with its warm weather, whereas Seoul is better for a studious life. Over the years, however, this negative subjectification of Jeju placed the province beyond the pale and it shrunk in the shadow of a hegemonic Seoul.
The pull of Seoul was one reason the population of Jeju long struggled to increase. Standing at 290,000 in 1955, then 330,000 in 1965, 410,000 in 1975 and 500,000 in 1987, it hit 604,670 by the end of last year. The population grew by just 100,000 in 26 years, with an average annual increase of 3,800.
Such figures mask a recent change, however, as there has been a rapid surge in the population since 2010, and as of June the population hit 612,705 with 620,000 expected by the end of the year.
The net population increase highlights this spike, at 2,343 in 2011, 4,873 in 2012, and 7,824 in 2013. By June, net inflow was already as high as 5,233, 35.7 percent up on the same time last year, with projections of comfortably hitting 10,000 by the year end.
Seeking a slowdown
The total inflow of people by mid-2014 was as high as 16,897 with most in their 40s and 50s, having the result that those in their 20s and 30s are decreasing as a proportion of the Jeju population. As young Jeju people are overrepresented among those leaving the province in search of work or study, wealthy and retired migrants are flocking to Jeju seeking a return to the land as they fall in love with their “island kingdom” and its beautiful and relaxing Olle trail strolls.
It is a truism to say that almost all visitors to Jeju are potential migrants, having felt this “Jeju syndrome.”
Just one case among many is a married couple in their 40s who moved here after studying abroad, attracted by the jade green sea of Woljeong-ri, Gujwa-eup. Opening a guesthouse and beach cafe, they are praising the slow life on this “island of romance.”
A more high-profile example is singer Lee Hyo-ri, who set up home in Sogil-ri, Aewol-eup, after marrying, sending local land prices up four-fold. Another is Han Jong-hoon, owner of the Museum of African Art, who relocated the museum from Seoul to Jungmun resort after being attracted by the pleasant environment and fresh air.
Officials caught off guard
The central government’s population estimates in the the Second Master Plan for Integrated Development (1992~2001 were over-optimistic, predicting Jeju's 2001 population to be 620,000, some way off the actual 560,000. The governor thus penned the slogan “1 million islanders, inside and outside Jeju.”
However, as a result of recent develop-ments, Jeju Development Institute proposes that the goal for 2025 should be 800,000 permanent residents and 200,000 temporary. The age of 1 million residents is thus not very far off.
One driving factor behind the growth has been the influence of Jeju Global Education City, built by Jeju Free International Development Center (JDC). While it was once taken for granted that Jeju students would flock to Seoul to study, mainland students are now coming to Jeju. They are getting a quality education too, as 52 of the first 56 graduates from NLCS Jeju have entered world-class universities abroad.
Of these, 47 have entered Ivy League universities such as Yale and Princeton, and other top-40 global universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. JDC chairman Kim Han-wook said that the students’ performance showed that Jeju’s international schools had “almost reached the highest level in Korea.”
It doesn’t stop at the JGEC, as there are also more than 500 Chinese students studying at Jeju National University, and this reflects the fact that 1,557 foreigners came to Jeju in the first half of this year, 800 more than the same period last year. The total number of international residents is thus fast approaching 14,000, which hints at Jeju’s rapid transformation into a multicultural society, perhaps gradually realizing its Jeju Free Inter-national City status.
For now, Jeju people should embrace these foreigners with warm hearts and live in harmony with them in the spirit of “Island of World Peace.” We saw on July 25 how Jeju people can offer such a warm welcome, as they gathered with generous hearts for a night of support for one of Jeju’s women migrant shelters.
Returning to the proverb with which we opened, perhaps we can say it has evolved, now reading: “Send any horse to Jeju, and any human to Jeju.”
Much of Jeju's population increase is due to more and more people escaping from mainland cities. The province has extensive programs to help such individuals with agricultural training, as above. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province