THE ISLANDS of Sinan county, off South Korea’s south-western coast, have never been a centre of anything much. Sustained by fishing, seaweed harvesting and salt farming, most are sparsely populated or entirely uninhabited. Reaching Mokpo, the nearest city, requires choppy ferry rides or slow car journeys along winding roads and across enormous bridges. As in most rural areas of South Korea, the local population is shrinking and ageing fast—and economic opportunities have been atrophying with it.
A few years ago the region briefly became notorious when it was revealed that workers on the salt farms were being treated like slaves, with the connivance of local officials. Police officers from Seoul trusted their local counterparts so little that they travelled to the area undercover to investigate. One of the outcomes of the scandal was supposed to be the construction of a new police station, but seven years on there is only an empty lot with a tattered purple sign reading, “Sinan police”.
The colour is no accident. Officials are trying to rebrand Sinan as a tourist destination with a purple theme. Two nearby islands, Banwoldo and Bakjido, have been transformed into an Instagram-ready curiosity through the application of lots of purple paint. Shops and houses have purple roofs and facades. The islands are connected by a purple walkway; purple paths are lined by purple flowers. A worker from the tourism association tending the flowers wears a purple hat.
At one level the scheme, cooked up in 2015 by Lee Nak-yeon, the provincial governor at the time, has been a resounding success. It has attracted nearly half a million additional visitors to the region since the spring of 2019, when the completion of a bridge made it possible to drive rather than take the ferry to the purple islands. Petrol-station attendants and coffee-shop owners along the route from Mokpo report a welcome surge in business that has been sustained even during the pandemic. Kim Ae-ran, a 70-something chicken farmer in a lilac face mask who runs a (purple) co-operative shop for local produce on the islands, says it is doing well: “It’s all very healthy and organic, city people love that.”
But not all locals are equally enthusiastic. “I don’t like it at all,” says one elderly resident working in her (white) cabbage patch not far from the purple path. “All the tourists bring is rubbish, and purple? Of all the colours they could have chosen! But what could I do when they offered to fix my roof free of charge?” Kim Hyun-kyung, the tourism-office worker in the purple hat, acknowledges that some residents were initially miffed: “But we fixed their houses and improved the roads, so most of them have come to terms with it.”
If the purple islands have inspired mixed feelings, other official development efforts have provoked more serious opposition. In February Moon Jae-in, the president, travelled to Jido in northern Sinan to announce that the mudflats off the coast would soon host the country’s largest offshore wind farm. The $40bn project is supposed to create 120,000 new jobs in the region. The president made the announcement on a new bridge connecting three of the islands. If the project goes ahead as planned, the coming decade will see yet more city slickers roll up in Sinan, albeit with hardhats instead of cameras.
Not all locals are pleased. When plans for the wind farm were first floated four years ago, fishermen and seaweed-farmers staged fierce protests, fearing it would disrupt their work. At the port below the bridge on which Mr Moon made his speech last month, shop owners and local residents are united in their opposition to both the wind farm and the bridge. “I heard the wind farm will scare away all the fish,” says a 78-year-old woman waiting for the ferry. “All the fishermen tried to stop it but I guess the president has been here now so it’ll happen.” “Nobody will come down to the port any more now the bridge is built, I might as well jump off it,” says a 60-something woman running a convenience store. “We all saw his motorcade when he came. He could at least have acknowledged we were here.” ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Purple pose”