Tucked away in Pyeongchang, South Korea’s sparse, hilly fields of yellow grass and stray roadway signs for ski resorts, 32-year-old Jeon Chung-won tended to his sheep in the morning’s golden hour.
“When you look up to the mountains here, you can feel them hugging you — the warmth,” Jeon said, through an interpreter. “That’s what makes Pyeongchang different from other countrysides around the world.”
Jeon, a bonafide millennial, grew up poor on this family farm tucked away in South Korea’s famous Taebaek Mountain range. His parents didn’t have enough money to buy him a coat in the winter, so he’d waddle to school in as many layers as he could possibly pull on. Sometimes, the school’s teachers — a married couple who lived in the nearby city of Gangneung — couldn’t make it to class because of the masses of snow and the winds that were known to blow away village rooftops. On those days, he and the nine other students at his school had no choice but to stay home.
“In the past, life wasn’t good enough. It’s not like how it is now,” Jeon said. “When I think back, that’s what comes to memory. Things were hard and we lived on a tight budget.”
Even so, Jeon misses the old Pyeongchang. He, like many his age, has seen both his backyard and South Korea at large rapidly develop. Now that the nation won the Olympic bid, Pyeongchang has become an internationally known name — but during Jeon’s childhood, it was just a quaint batch of farmer towns with shaman fortune tellers and children roving through the fields.
“There was something special about the old Pyeongchang we used to live in. But now, it’s all gone,” he said. “You can feel the global warming going on. The ski resorts have to use artificial snow ... Some mountains are gone and now we have these wide [two-lane] roads and big facilities. Sometimes, life here feels more convenient — but sometimes I feel so sorry about it all.”
Pyeongchang County’s population is about 43,000 people — about 548 times smaller than the cosmopolitan Seoul Capital Area, a hub that holds half of South Korea’s population today. More and more, Korean young adults from the countryside move to major cities to have a fair shot at jobs in a highly-competitive, industrialized and well-educated society. Jeon himself spent 10 years in Seoul pursuing a career in academia — he even earned a master’s degree in international politics — but unlike most others, he decided to leave the fast-paced, stress-ridden life of city behind and return home.
But the fallout of Korea’s gravitation toward Seoul, of course, hits hardest in agriculture-focused places like Pyeongchang — where residents over the age of 65 have increased from 10% of the population in 1998 to about 24% in 2017, according to the county’s statistics service. That’s far higher than the 13% national average recorded in 2016.
“Aging is a very serious problem here. In 10 or 20 years, the elderly will die and there will be no one left to do the farming,” he said. ”[Right now], these people are already too old to farm … It should be passed onto the next generation, but so far, that’s not going so well.”
Though the Winter Olympics are taking place in Pyeongchang’s elaborate ski resorts and Gangneung City’s newly built ice rinks, much of Gangwon Province — the overarching district holding these two areas — is struggling to make a living. It’s one of South Korea’s poorest provinces, with the average person making about $18,355 USD a year — that’s far less than the Seoul’s average income in 2018, which is projected to be about $30,000. The end result is people working to the bone and through their elder years, which is what happened to Jeon’s mother, who died 10 years ago.
“It was rough on my father. He couldn’t bring himself to work on the farm and he felt so guilty about my mother’s death,” Jeon said. “He felt like he didn’t take enough care of her — that she got sick from doing all of this hard labor.”
Fear for the future
Jeon’s 48,185-acre ranch — Daegwallyeong Sheep Farm — was first opened in 1988, the same year of the Seoul Olympics that’s now lauded as South Korea’s “coming out party” as a major world economic power. Since then, the ranch has gone from a small, ragtag effort to one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions. Children spilled out of buses at the farm’s entrance on Feb. 22, 13 days into the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. There, a booth with two staff members sold admission tickets, which cost about $4.64 USD per adult and about a dollar less for kids.
“When I’m stressed or irritated, I go up to the mountains on this farm and look at the sheep. It makes me feel comfortable. I ask my guests to try and feel that,” Jeon said. “Sometimes, I tell them to feed the sheep and look into their eyes. They have these big, clear eyes — you can feel them cleansing you as look into them.”
Jeon, like many locals in Pyeongchang, expected a big payoff during the nearly $13 billion Olympics. The community at large has dealt with a lot, including legal land seizures by the government, the teardown of a sacred forest, a disappointing and poorly translated slogan branding their area and the possibility that the expensive, post-Olympic venue maintenance will fall on their taxes. Some ski shop owners are so outraged that they’ve been protesting with signs that say “The Olympics are killing us.”
For Jeon, too, the Winter Games have yielded surprisingly little benefit. His farm gets anywhere between 550,000 to 600,000 visitors per year, he said, and he’s used to about 600 or 700 people on weekdays. But during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, he’s surprisingly only gotten about 400 to 500 visitors per day, with surges of nearly 1,000 people per day on the weekends.
“It’s a lot less than I thought … We should be getting about 2,000 people on the weekends,” he said. “There’s two sides to the Olympics: It’s great to host it here, but it could be a letdown for this town when it comes to the future.”
It’s hard to pinpoint why, but Jeon mentioned the same thing that many other business owners in Pyeongchang and Gangneung brought up throughout the Olympics: news reports months before the games that claimed hotel prices were wildly inflated (some reported hotel rooms for more than $1,000 a night). On several occasions, businesses told Mic that this had a chilling effect on their hotel bookings, even when they themselves didn’t significantly raise the price. Naturally, that affects visitor rates at nearby tourist attractions, as well.
“Maybe two out of ten hotels actually ran their business that way, but it came out as exaggerated. Our image [as Pyeongchang] is completely damaged and that really made people here angry,” Jeon said. “And now that the Olympic tourists are leaving, I think the impact of this will linger on us far longer than this year. Who’s going to come visit us?”
He answered his own question.
“Not many people at all,” he said, “I’m serious.”
Jisoo Hong contributed to this report.