On the main street in Mugeuk, a mountainous village around 90 minutes from Seoul, there are two markets a few hundred metres apart. The older of the two, which has been around for over 100 years, is a traditional bazaar, a high-ceilinged labyrinth of stalls and restaurants selling Korean dishes and produce from nearby farms. It was the centre of village life for decades, but nowadays it is mostly quiet, open only one out of every five days.
Down the street is Asia Mart, a store in operation for the last 15 years, which caters primarily to the area’s growing population of migrant workers. Inside, there is a table with fruits from Southeast Asia, packets of instant Indian curry, shelves of Chinese grain liquor and canned fish with Russian language labels. Next to the store’s entrance is a table where customers can buy SIM cards and lottery tickets. When I visited on a crisp autumn afternoon last year, there was a near constant flow of migrants going in and out, buying cold fruit juice, cigarettes and snacks.
In recent years, the road that runs between the two markets has become an essential point of connection for the village economy, which relies on cheap foreign labour. In a few concrete buildings, there are agencies that work to dispatch labourers to farms, factories and construction sites in the surrounding countryside. On weekday mornings, men, mostly in their twenties and thirties, from countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, report at these offices hoping to be sent out for a day’s work. Mugeuk is one of many rural communities in South Korea that have shrunk in recent years, as young people leave to attend university and seek jobs in cities. Taking their place, along with several low-wage jobs in agriculture and manufacturing, is a wave of young men from poorer Asian countries who come to South Korea, often on non-renewable five-year visas. According to data put out by the South Korean government, the number of foreigners residing in the country more than tripled between 2006 and 2016. There are over 250,000 migrants in the country on visas for unskilled labour. They work low-wage jobs but enough to allow workers to save sums of money to buy land or put their children through school.
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