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Tired Of The Seoul-Sucking Rat Race, Koreans Flock To Farming

Kim Pil-Gi left his construction job in Seoul, South Korea, three months ago to raise grubs with his parents in the countryside.
Ari Shapiro
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Kim Pil-Gi left his construction job in Seoul, South Korea, three months ago. Now he happily spends his days handling grubs: squirming, writhing, beetle larvae, each one about as thick as a grown man's thumb. He sits at a tray, sorting them by size.

"At the construction company a lot of the time I'd wake up at 6 in the morning and work all night through to the next day," he says. "That was really hard for me."

South Korea has an overwhelmingly urban population. More than 80 percent of people live in cities. But in the past few years, something has started to change. Tens of thousands of South Koreans like Kim Pil-Gi are relocating to the countryside each year. His father, Kim Jin-Suk, left a marketing job in Seoul to start this farm.

"In the city you're always running short of time, because you're trying to get rich," he says. "In the countryside, I find that I have more time for myself."

This just happens to be lucrative, too. A pound of dried larvae powder sells for more than $400. The mother, Choi Young-Sik, gently places her hand on the writhing mass. She spent her career working for the government.

The larvae are used in traditional medicine — powdered or juiced. They're said to cure hangovers, clear the skin and improve kidney and liver function.
Ari Shapiro / NPR
The larvae are used in traditional medicine — powdered or juiced. They're said to cure hangovers, clear the skin and improve kidney and liver function.

"If you look at these larvae as money, they are pretty, and cute, and you love them," she says.

Life in South Korean cities is intense. Until a decade ago, a six-day workweek was the norm.

Out here in the countryside, these larvae are easy to grow. It doesn't matter whether a year is hot or cold, wet or dry; the grubs live in dirt, in big plastic bins, in climate-controlled rooms.

People use these larvae, powdered or juiced, in traditional medicine. They say they cure hangovers, clear your skin and improve kidney and liver function. Choi Young-Sik says she takes at least two spoonfuls a day.

She goes into a back room and brings out a special treat for her guests. Inside a plastic bag is a brown powder that looks like it could be fertilizer or coffee grounds. This is the grubs.

She asks if I would like a taste. I need to stall for time. Let's bring in an analyst.

"Unlike Europe and other developed nations, Korea developed incredibly quickly," says horticulture professor Choe Sang-Heon of Cheonan Yonam University. "This makes people exhausted and resentful. They don't necessarily want to be part of collective society, working like a machine."

He says 45,000 households have relocated to the countryside in the past year alone, and the numbers are increasing dramatically. He believes this reflects an imbalance in South Korean society

"You don't see this trend as much in other parts of the world," he says. "You don't see it in Europe or Japan."

In Korean, the trend of moving to the countryside is called guinong. I spoke by phone with one man who left the city to raise purple heirloom carrots, and with a woman named Kim Hyun Hee who took her family out of Seoul to farm omija berries — they're used in a popular tea.

"Life in the city is tied down. And that's why we came to the countryside," she says. "We wanted our kids to be close to nature, and we wanted to live a life that's environmentally friendly."

Of course, the people I visited in person did not raise carrots, or berries. The time has come to taste these grubs.

I swallow a heaping spoonful of the brown powder, trying to convince myself that it'll help my liver and kidneys. The taste is nutty, a bit chalky, with a flavor similar to brewers yeast. "That's the protein," the mother says.

"Less nutty than grubby" is my producer Haeryun Kang's verdict. "I'll take an almond any day."

For this family, the move to the countryside has been a win-win. Not only do they live in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and trees, but they also earn $300,000 a year. And they have plans to double their output in the years ahead.

You can take the man out of the rat race. It's harder to take the rat race out of the man.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.