Improving Public Service Delivery through Rural Centers

A community center in Gonjiam-eup provides a space for residents to interact through various activities, like sharing farm produce and watching movies. Photo credit: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Republic of Korea.

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The Republic of Korea is revitalizing rural centers to improve the quality of life in rural areas.


Rural development policy in the Republic of Korea (ROK) has developed from community-based programs to nationwide comprehensive programs that cover both agriculture and nonagricultural industries. However, meeting rural service standards in all areas has been elusive because of resource constraints and the geographical challenges involved.  

Policies for rural areas must be approached differently than urban areas. Revitalizing rural centers can be a way to ensure that all rural residents enjoy better public service. 

History of the Rural Development Policy

In the late 1950s, community development movements began to overcome absolute poverty and increase agricultural productivity. In the 1970s, the Saemaeul (new village) Movement—which aimed to improve rural income, infrastructure, and the residential environment—spread nationwide.

Policies in the 1980s and 1990s were promoted within a more state-led comprehensive framework. The central government developed roads and water sources in rural areas and improved welfare systems.

In the 2000s, the rural development policy was expanded from agricultural production to rural settlements and amenities. The government enacted the Special Act on Improving the Quality of Life in Rural Areas and Rural Development Promotion in 2004. It also prepared for the National Standards for Rural Area Services in 2010, which set a concrete policy target to guarantee a high quality of life for rural settlers by 2019. In the mid-2010s, the government concentrated investment in welfare programs, such as housing maintenance, safety management, and the revitalization of rural centers.


Results of the 2019 achievement assessment of the National Standards for Rural Area Services showed that except for emergency services (99.5%) and the broadband convergence network (over 90%), however, most areas like receiving lifelong education programs (18.8%), the use of daycare facilities for infants (67.9%), and professional education service on employment (76.1%) fell short of their 2019 target—40%, 80%, and 100%, respectively.

Geographical characteristics have made it difficult to improve service delivery in rural areas. Most of the villages are scattered in the countryside and at a considerable distance from the rural center. As a result, it is difficult for villagers to enjoy services on a par with those living in urban areas and rural centers.

It is also challenging for the government to supply equal infrastructure to all villages due to resource and financial constraints.

Revitalizing Rural Centers

The strategy for service provision (housing, welfare, education, and medical care) for rural areas must consider spatial challenges.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs established a policy to revitalize rural centers in 2013 to overcome these challenges and to address the increasing number of depopulated villages. The policy aims to ensure that all residents living in the neighboring villages as well as the rural center can enjoy an equal level of public service. This is by expanding the unique functions of the rural centers and ensuring that services can be smoothly delivered to neighboring villages through various programs.

Concept of Rural Center Revitalization Project

Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. 2016. Rural Center Revitalization: Focus and Delivery. Sejong. (Reorganized by the author).

To achieve this, the Korean government’s Rural Center Revitalization Project has allocated $7 million to $10 million per chosen district. It has selected about 20 districts every year after nominating 15 districts as pilot sites in 2015.

The residents from both the rural center and neighboring villages participate in the project during the initial stage of establishing an implementation plan. To increase the feasibility of the plan, on-site forums are conducted, and an advisory group composed of experts from various fields, such as landscape/design, architecture, economy, and welfare, are formed.

Sample Implementation

Commercial and industrial complexes are located at Gonjiam-eup (eup means “town”) in Gwangju, a suburb located southeast of Seoul. A lot of multicultural families live here. However, there has been little space for interaction between the residents. Then the Gonjihyang Madang—a 4-story complex community center—was constructed, and public parking lots, commuter roads, and the local market’s environment were improved.

In Gonjihyang Madang, residents formed clubs, such as the Gonjihyang Urban Farmer, Gonjiam Healthy Meal, and Pungmulnori (instrumental farm music), and created a shared library, and a village gallery. It has become a space for the town and neighboring villages.

For elderly residents, customized programs, such as health promotion courses in cooperation with public health centers, are held. Service visits are also arranged for residents of neighboring villages who could not go to the community center on their own. Some club members hold activities during visits, like dementia-prevention gymnastics.

Moreover, residents have conducted various income-generating activities, such as the Happy Table Festival and a flea market. Profits from these events are used as funds to support the underprivileged in the area. The local farmers’ club shares the harvests from their gardens through the Happiness Sharing Refrigerator on the first floor of the building. Likewise, income earned from the regular operation of the movie theater is used for events for underprivileged children at the end of the year.

Gonjiam-eup has become sustainable, even after the end of government funding, because it responded to a local demand and has secured and trained the needed manpower to continuously operate the complex.   

Policy Implications
  1. Rural centers in the 21st century should provide a wide range of public, commercial, cultural, and welfare services to satisfy people’s needs and be revitalized as new settlement bases. Rural areas, where population size is determined by land productivity, have a low population density. To build an efficient service delivery system, a small number of “regional nodes” as service centers must be created so that more residents can benefit from them. This approach has great implications for developing economies as it is more cost-effective than investing in individual villages.

  2. Linkages and cooperation between the residents of the rural center and the neighboring villages must be established. For example, the neighboring villages can provide the workforce for businesses in the rural center, or neighboring village produce can be sold in rural center markets. Enhancing the transportation service connecting the neighboring villages must be prioritized to improve accessibility to the services available at the rural center. The introduction of ICT can further diversify and strengthen these linkages.

  3. Compact development strategies for rural centers must be implemented to ensure sustainable development and counter population decline in rural areas. Various functions and facilities can be set in one place through area-based integrated planning to make operations more sustainable and to improve residents’ participation.

  4. The actual local demand should be reflected in project plans through community participation. Allow communities to participate in small-scale business activities and other opportunities to strengthen their capacity. An empowered community can support a project’s operation even after government funding.


J. Kim. 2013. A New Direction for the Rural Center Revitalization Policy. Chungnam Institute, Gongju.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. 2016. Rural Center Revitalization: Focus and Delivery. Sejong.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. 2019. Rural Service Standards Implementation and Evaluation. Sejong.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. 2020. 7th Happy Village Contest: Award Cases. Sejong.

OECD (2018). Innovation, Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability in Korea. OECD Food and Agricultural Reviews. OECD Publishing, Paris.

S. Lee. 2014. Changes in Rural Center Revitalization Policies and Response in Chungcheongnam-do. Gongju.

Sangjun Lee
Former Natural Resources and Agriculture Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, ADB

Sangjun Lee helped leverage the Republic of Korea’s agricultural and rural development experience in ADB projects. He also worked for the Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs for 10 years. He has a bachelor’s degree from Seoul National University and a master's degree from the University of Birmingham. 

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