The population crisis, characterized by recent and deepening demographic decline, regional depopulation, and the emergence of a super-aged society, is expected to worsen in future societies. Consequently, it is imperative to shift existing regional development strategies away from the era of population growth. The vulnerability of the population structure due to low birth rates and aging, the concentration of population in metropolitan areas, and the crisis in regional populations necessitate strategies to enhance the quality of life in local communities and regional development approaches to address the sustainability challenges facing South Korea. This study aims to provide insights and policy directions for coping with the population crisis, including population decline, regional depopulation, and the advent of a super-aged society, with a particular focus on rural areas, to propose strategies for a sustainable South Korea.
While the government has pursued policies aimed at attracting populations to areas facing population decline, the policy effects have been limited. Rather than simply striving for quantitative population expansion, there is a greater demand for improving the living conditions of residents to enhance their quality of life. Rural areas are experiencing continuous out-migration of young populations and an exacerbation of the risk of regional depopulation. The aging population has led to labor shortages, resulting in a growing need for foreign labor in rural areas. However, issues such as ambiguity in foreign labor policies, the inability to track labor status, labor supply instability, wage arrears, inadequate safety management, and living difficulties have arisen.
Given the looming demographic changes, including population decline, regional depopulation, and the impending super-aged society, it is inevitable that a transition from the previous quantitative growth-based regional development strategies will be required. Acknowledging the significant trend of population decline, it is essential to adopt a dual approach: adaptation strategies for long-term perspectives and mitigation strategies to alleviate the rapid progress of aging and population decline. This study proposes various measures for population inflow in areas facing population decline, such as 1) creating attractive living conditions in rural areas, 2) developing region-specific return-to-farming models, 3) establishing collaboration networks between local communities, universities, and industries, 4) enhancing local workforce education and capacity, 5) improving regulations for the employment of foreign workers, 6) providing specialized agricultural education and improving working conditions, and 7) utilizing resident and relationship populations. Additionally, to enhance the quality of life in population-declining areas, this study suggests measures including 1) expanding local medical resources, 2) strengthening support for population-declining areas, 3) promoting smart agriculture and rural development, 4) diversing approaches for providing lifestyle services, and 5) implementing strategies for population decline adaptation and urban size optimization.