South Jeolla is one of Korea’s least developed and greenest provinces, where 25% of households are farmers against a national average of 7%. The province is pioneering pesticide-free and organic farming, while fish farming has breathed new life into coastal fishing villages and the many small, offshore islands, more and more of which are being linked by bridges to the mainland. A feature of rural life these days is farmers marrying Vietnamese and other Asian brides, so that Jeollanam-do has more international marriages than Seoul.
Irrigated rice fields, marine and land-based national parks, dramatic coastal views, fresh seafood and political dissent sum up the province. But – just as a one-time radical can become part of the establishment – Jeollanam-do is slowly but surely becoming more like the rest of Korea: it is now crisscrossed by expressways and its expanding cities are filling up with anonymous apartment blocks. Despite this, the province retains a rebel edge and is proud of its ceramic and artistic traditions, its Naju pears and green tea, its exiled poets and its pro-democracy martyrs.
The region’s two heroes are Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who defeated the Japanese navy in the 1590s, and Kim Dae-jung, a 20th-century democracy warrior who became president in 1997 and finally ended the stranglehold on political power and patronage held by politicians from the eastern provinces. He received almost 100% support from the Jeolla provinces.