These are the last children left on this South Korean island, a symptom of country's demographic crisis
- There are less than 5 children left on Nokdo, a once-bustling South Korean fishing village.
- The rural town only has 100 or so residents left, and the last school closed in 2006.
- Nokdo is symptomatic of the country's fast-graying society and low birth rate.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Lyoo Chan-hee, 10, no longer has an elementary school to go to.
He is one of few children left on Nokdo, an island off South Korea's western coast. A once-bustling fishing village, the rural town is now home to only 100 or so residents, many of whom are over 60.
The island has less than 5 children left living on it. There's Lyoo Chan-hee, 10, his sister Chae-hee, 7, and his youngest sister, Ye-hee, 3, children of the island's pastor, Lee Geun-pil, 42. Chan-hee sometimes plays with his friend, Kim Si-hu, 9, who also lives on Nokdo.
"It would be great if I have more friends here because I can have more options to play," said Chan-hee to Reuters journalists Hong-Ji Kim and Cynthia Kim.
Instead of running around with his peers by the coastline, he plays with 66-year-old islander Kim Si-young.
"He (Kim) always calls me and shares whenever he is having something delicious," Chan-hee said on a wind-blown day earlier this month as the pair shared grilled oysters.
"That's no lie," said Kim. "I also play ball and badminton with Chan-hee. I always lose though."
"I cried so much when the island school closed in 2006," Kim told Reuters. "I want to protect Nokdo but it's depressing to see fewer and fewer people here."
Lyoo Geun-pil, who works in a pastoral position on the island and is one of its younger residents, told Reuters that he thought Nokdo was a "heavenly place." He described the freedom that his children could have, and the life that they could lead where their only worries would be chasing wild goats and seagulls, and not looking out for traffic or navigating the trials of city life.
He plans to keep his family in Nokdo for as long as possible, but he worries that the "place might disappear soon."
"Chan-hee needs to go to a middle school in two years … I want to give some hope (to folks on the island) by finding a way to give middle school education to Chan-hee from here," Lyoo said.
The last elementary school in Nokdo closed in 2006, due to a lack of both students and teachers, and learning facilities for the remaining children are now limited to one makeshift mini-classroom and a teacher who comes over from the mainland.
Nokdo, which is an hour-long ferry ride from Boryeong on the west coast of South Korea, used to be home to hundreds of people.
But the island's fishing trade and its fortunes have since deteriorated, as decades of urbanization have forced residents to pursue a better, more modern life on the Korean mainland.
Yet for Chan-hee, Nokdo is still a lovely place to live.
"Seoul is so crowded, noisy and the air is not good," Chan-hee told Reuters.
"Nokdo has no traffic, isn't noisy and the air is clean. I can play outside more actively, so I like it here."
A symptom of dismal birth rates and a fast-graying society
Nokdo's decline is also indicative of a demographic crisis plaguing South Korea. According to the World Bank, the country is now the world's fastest-graying society, and had the lowest birth rate in the world in 2020.
The South China Morning Post reported that the country's total fertility rate had dropped to 0.84.
Some have blamed sky-high prices in the Seoul metropolitan area for young couples' unwillingness to marry and start families. Meanwhile, others are attributing the decline in the birth rate to fallout from the Covid pandemic and an overall drop in marriages and widespread job losses.
Korean lawmakers were worried enough about this trend to fork out cash incentives to motivate couples to have children. Starting in 2022, the South Korean government will be offering a bonus of 2 million won ($1,826) per birth and will pay 300,000 won ($265) monthly until the child's first birthday.
As reported in Korean local news site Pulse News, Hong Nam-ki, deputy prime minister for economy and finance, said the government planned to shell out a total of 196 trillion won between now and 2025 to promote the country's birth rate.
"We are at a critical point on the demographic front. Working population thins by 230,000 this year to 37.36 million and another 230,000 next year," Hong said.
"If we don't start now, we could face a population cliff."
Receive a daily news update on your cellphone. Or get the best of our site emailed to you
Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.