March 24, 2006
Remote S.Korea garlic island plants German hamlet
By Jon Herskovitz
NAMHAE, South Korea (Reuters) - At about as far south as South Korea goes, German is spoken in a community of homes with A-frame roofs reminiscent of Lower Saxony.
Namhae, famous for its garlic, is faced with a declining economy as well as a falling population.
It sees a way to solve these problems by opening its arms and embracing Germans as well as South Koreans who have lived in Germany for most of their adult lives and asking them to come the island and call it home.
Namhae is also looking for pockets of the South Korean diaspora who left the country in the 1960s and 70s -- and perhaps married locals along the way -- to make a U-turn and retire on its shores.
It has established the German Village for them. Soon, homes will be complete in an American equivalent and the local government is also planning a Japanese village.
"If we can get people to come back, we can build our economy," said Namhae mayor Ha Young-je.
"We are trying to reconnect people to their homeland and introduce a peaceful and pleasant part of South Korea to foreigners who never thought they would live here."
Among the new residents in Namhae is Ludwig Straus, 79, who used to live in Mainz and worked as a taxation official, and his wife Kim Woo-za, 65, a South Korean who went to West Germany more than three decades ago to work as a nurse.
The couple traded a view of the Rhine River at their home in Germany for a view of the Korea Strait in Namhae's German Village, which will soon be a collection of nearly 50 homes on cobblestone streets nestled in a hillside.
SAUSAGES AND STRANGERS
About 40 percent of the couples living in the German Village are Germans who have married South Koreans and the rest are South Koreans who have lived for more than 30 years in Germany.
Hyundai cars have stickers with "D" for Deutschland, garden gnomes are on the lawns and everyone knows the place that serves the best sausages on the island.
Straus has business cards with a simple address that reads "German Village." The bookshelf at their home is filled with items from Germany and South Korea and they receive a German news channel on cable television.
"We can live like we are in Germany in this neighborhood," Straus said. "It is also nice because I seem to get invited to every wedding and festival in town."
His wife said it took her a little while to become re-acquainted with South Korean culture.
She is still not used to being met with strange looks when she greets people during walks because it is not a typical Korean custom to greet strangers.
"At times, we can feel isolated because of the cultural differences. But we have had no major problems," Kim said.
The German Village concept came from a former mayor of Namhae whose sister was one of several thousand South Korean nurses and miners who went to the former West Germany.
South Korea was impoverished then and it sought a partnership with West Germany and received aid money from the then similarly divided country. In exchange, it sent about 10,000 nurses and 7,800 miners to the country between 1963 and 1978, according to historical accounts.
The emigres sent tens of millions of dollars back home, providing a significant boost to South Korea's economy.
Namhae offered tax breaks and cheap land to entice the German residents to come back. It thought of building more than 100 houses for them and received applications from more than 400 families. It scaled down the number of homes to make sure they had gardens as well as enough space to match homes in Europe.
UNITED NATIONS OF RETIREMENT
Mayor Ha has big dreams of building foreign communities on his island but readily admits there are problems with language, infrastructure, consumer items, health care and a host of other matters that need to be better managed to make the remote part of the country more international.
A cafe at an art village down the road from German Village is stocked with German wine and makes its own sausages but has no German beer on tap yet.
Namhae had a population of about 120,000 in the 1960s and is now home to about 51,000. It is the top-ranked county in South Korea for having the largest percentage of its population being 65 or older. That figure is 25.8 percent.
Mayor Ha knows that bringing more senior citizens to Namhae might not seem like a logical long-term solution to boost the population. But he thinks he can create a certain cache through international villages that will attract stores, hotels and students interested in cultural exchanges.
He recently took a three-city tour of the United States and signed up 21 families for retirement in the American Village, where some homes will be completed by next year.
Japan Village is likely to emerge in a more concrete form later this year.
"This may not be their hometown," said Ha. "But I have found older Koreans overseas who are willing to live here and to die here," he said, referring to ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo)