Here in one of the southernmost points of the Korean Peninsula, hours away from the nearest city (i.e: Gwangju Metropole, Seoul-Incheon and Busan), a few dozen houses with sloping, red-tiled roofs and large white walls dot the side of a hill. More are under construction, separated from one another by wide, sometimes cobblestone streets. It’s a bit surreal – is this really Korea?, I thought - and for a few minutes, you really can be fooled into thinking you've left the peninsula.
On closer inspection, as the setting sun enveloped the hill in a warm glow one recent evening, large and, well, German-looking men could be seen standing on a terrace or in a yard next to garden dwarfs and white picket fences. German could be heard, not only from the men, but also from the Koreans here.
Namhae German Village (Hanja: 南海獨逸마을) in Mulgeon-ri, Samdong-myeon, Namhae County, Southern Gyeongsang Province (German: Mulgeon Dorf, Landgemeinde Samdong, Landkreis Namhae, Provinz Süd-Gyeongsang) - located near to Mulgeon Harbor, is an improbable creation, the product of this nation's shifting needs. In the 1960's and 70's, South Korea, impoverished and overpopulated after Korean War (1950~1953), sent thousands of its citizens to work as nurses or miners in West Germany (on that time, Federal Republic of Germany [West] and German Democratic Republic [East] was not reunite yet until the Fall of Berlin Wall and German Reunification in October 3rd 1990). West Germany received thousands of South Korean miners and nurses – nearly 20,000 in all. These workers sent some of their earnings back to Korea, which contributed in part to Korea’s growth during that time. Some of them settled in Germany, while others moved back to Korea.
Aware of the area’s aging population, authorities of Namhae County reached out to those foreign workers. The pitch: come back to Korea, live in peace, and we’ll offer you cheap land and help subsidize the construction of a German-style house. The plan has worked, to an extent – despite the cost and the very real inevitability of retirees passing on, the houses are gorgeous and the area peaceful. Today, they and their German spouses are being welcomed back, especially in rural areas whose populations have been decimated by urban migration and declining birthrates.
Namhae County authorities took the invitation a step further by carving this village from a mountain facing the sea. They offered cheap land and construction subsidies to any Korean nurse or miner who had lived in Germany for at least 20 years, requiring that they build houses in one of five German architectural models. The village will eventually accommodate up to 75 houses.
So far, the village has drawn a small community of Koreans and some Germans, who may not have ever imagined whiling away their retirement days in a corner of South Korea that is visited by few Koreans, though it is famous for its garlic.