The last children: South Korea's depopulating island

This South Korean island only has a few children left - and is rapidly depopulating.

10 year-old Lyoo Chan-hee and his two younger sisters are among the last 100 residents and they don’t have many playmates.

Their school opened especially for them a few years ago.

They have a makeshift mini-classroom and a teacher is dispatched from the mainland.

"It would be great if I have more friends here because I can have more options to play."

Nokdo is emblematic of a wider demographic crisis.

According to the World Bank, South Korea saw its population drop for the first time last year.

It has the world's fastest-ageing society with the lowest birth rate anywhere in 2020,

with it’s fertility rate sliding to just 0.84 – that’s compared to 4.5 in 1970.

South Korea’s economic boom since the 70s saw the rise of world-class manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor.

More women began to enter the workforce and family planning campaigns - including sterilisation – began.

66-year-old resident Kim Si-young recalls memories of a crowded school and how his generation was advised to get vasectomies to curb population growth.

"When we went for national service military training, some of us used to undergo vasectomy to curb population growth after having kids. Some got their wives to get it done. It would be an empty island if the number continues to decrease. It saddens me, I want to protect Nokdo but it's depressing to see fewer and fewer people here."

More recently, soaring house prices in the Seoul metropolitan area has been blamed for fewer babies in the country.

Lockdowns also discouraged couples from marrying and starting families.

For Chan-hee, Nokdo provides a better playground - despite the lack of friends.

"Seoul is so crowed, noisy and the air is not good. However, Nokdo has no traffic, isn't noisy and the air is clean. I can play outside more actively, so I like it here."

Chan-hee's father plans to stay in Nokdo for as long as his pastoral position allows -

even if that means taking his children’s schooling into his own hands.

[Pastor and father of three children, Lyoo Geun-pil]

"I am not sure how the middle school issue will be solved, the best option is finding a way to provide middle school education to Chan-hee from here but if impossible, I'm also considering homeschooling."

Video Transcript

- This South Korean island only has a few children left. And it's rapidly depopulating. 10-year-old Lyoo Chan-hee and his two younger sisters are among the last 100 residents. And they don't have many playmates. Their school opened especially for them a few years ago. They have a makeshift mini-classroom and a teacher who was dispatched from the mainland.

LYOO CHAN-HEE: It'd be great if I could have more friends here because I can have more options to play.

- Nokdo is emblematic of a wider demographic crisis. According to the World Bank, South Korea saw its population drop for the first time last year. It has the world's fastest-aging society, with the lowest birth rate anywhere in 2020, with its fertility rate sliding to just 0.84. That's compared to 4.5 in 1970.

South Korea's economic boom since the '70s saw the rise of world class manufacturers like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor. More women began to enter the workforce. And family planning campaigns, including sterilization, began. 66-year-old resident Kim Si-young recalls memories of a crowded school and how his generation was advised to get vasectomies to curb population growth.

KIM SI-YOUNG: When we went for national service military training, some of us used to undergo a vasectomy to curb population growth after having kids. Some got their wives to get it done. It will be an empty island if the numbers continue to decrease. It saddens me. I want to protect Nokdo. But it's depressing to see fewer and fewer people.

- More recently, soaring house prices in the Seoul metropolitan area has been blamed for fewer babies in the country. Lockdowns also discouraged couples from marrying and starting families.

For Chan-hee, Nokdo provides a better playground, despite the lack of friends.

LYOO CHAN-HEE: Seoul is so crowded, noisy. And the air is not good. However, Nokdo has no traffic, isn't noisy, and the air is clean. I can play outside more actively. So I like it here.

- Chan-hee's father plans to stay in Nokdo for as long as his pastoral position allows, even if that means taking his children's schooling into his own hands.

- I am not sure how the middle school issue will be solved. The best option is finding a way to provide middle school education to Chan-hee from here. But if impossible, I'm also considering homeschooling.