Retracing the History of the Republic of Korea in Busan
Dynamic Busan, Dynamic Korea
The location of the first battle of the Imjin War, which broke out in 1592; Joseon’s first modern open port, established by an appendix to the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876; the city used by Japan as its base for the invasion of the continent during the Japanese colonial era; the provisional capital during the Korean War; a port city that grew with the economy of the Republic of Korea during the 1970s and 1980s; host of the 2002 Asian Games; host of the 2005 APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting; and host of the 2011 Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness.
These descriptions all point to one place: Busan. Clearly Busan has been the stage for many important moments in the history of the Republic of Korea. Developing from a place that once received relief goods to become the host city of an international conference where developmental aid is discussed, Busan has certainly walked a dynamic path through history. As if speaking to this, the city’s brand slogan is “Dynamic Busan“; but few of the travellers visiting the city look for the traces of history that are part of the landscape here. So we’ve prepared a list. Here in this city, with its many famous restaurants and attractions, you can glimpse the dynamic past and present of Busan and the Republic of Korea. Let’s get started. “Dandi jal ttaraoiso.” (Busan dialect for “Make sure you keep up.”)
Recommended path for a one-night, two-day trip to Busan
Scattered around Busan are countless pieces of history, from the Palaeolithic era to modern times. It would be great if you could see and feel all those pieces, but, realistically, it’s impossible to see everything in a short time. I’ve put together only large chunks, centred on modern history since the Imjin War, for a tight one-night, two-day itinerary. For travel convenience, the recommended path divides the area into the north and south, centred on Busan Station.
1) Samjin Eomuk (삼진 어묵, Samjin Fish Cakes)
2) Jaseongdae Park (자성대 공원) & Joseon Tongsinsa History Museum (조선통신사 역사관)
3) Jobangap (조방 앞)
4) Wonjo Halmae Nakji (원조 할매 낙지, Grandma Wonjo’s Octopus)
5) United Nations Memorial Cemetery (유엔기념공원)
6) Busan Citizens Park (부산시민공원)
7) Dongbaek Island (동백섬)
8) Nurimaru (누리마루)
9) Gwangalli (광안리, Millak Waterside Park (민락 수변 공원))
1) Busan Modern History Museum (부산 근대역사관)
2) BIFF Plaza (BIFF 광장)
3) 18-beon Wandangjip (18번 완당집, Wonton House No. 18)
4) Yeongdo Bridge (영도대교)
5) Jeolyeong Coastal Walk (절영해안산책로)
6) Yeongdo 75 Square (영도 75광장)
7) Baekkudang (백구당, White Gull)
Samjin Eomuk (삼진 어묵, Samjin Fish Cakes)
When you arrive at Busan Station, you’ll notice many shops in the main terminal. The most popular place with travellers these days is definitely “Samjin Eomuk (Samjin Fish Cakes).” If fried streusel is a must at Daejeon Station and barley bread at Gyeongju Station, then we might say that Samjin fish cakes are the thing at Busan Station.
Samjin Eomuk is a new-concept fish cake bakery newly introduced by Samjin Foods, which has been operating from its headquarters in Yeongdo, Busan since 1953. To put it another way, although the shop is new, the fish cake flavour maintains its history and tradition. Here, instead of bread, you can choose and purchase fish cakes made fresh daily. The recommended menu is various kinds of fish cake croquette.
The history of Busan’s fish cakes began as large numbers of Japanese settled in the city with the opening of Busan Harbour. The fish cake business in Busan that started when locals learned how to manufacture fish cakes from the Japanese, really picked up with the influx of many refugees into Busan during the Korean War. Many fish cake factories came into the area as corporations like Samjin Foods and Yeongjin Foods started making a name for themselves. As the country reached a period of economic development in the 1970s, the Busan fish cake industry enjoyed a boom as the greater part of its equipment was automated.
Jaseongdae Park (자성대 공원) & Joseon Tongsinsa History Museum (조선통신사 역사관)
Now that we’ve filled our bellies with fish cakes, let’s head over to Jaseongdae Park, which will help with digestion. We can travel much more comfortably by taking a bus from the front of Busan Station, instead of taking the subway. The most likely of the ideas about the origin of the name “Jaseongdae”, which is also called the “Branch Wall-Fortress of Busanjin”, is that the main castle of Busanjin was called the “Mother Fortress” (Moseong) and this was called the “Son Fortress” (Jaseong).
The present site of the park is surrounded by roads and buildings, but, in the past, it was on the waterfront, so the fort was the first to deal with foreign enemies invading from the sea. The first engagement of the Imjin War, the “Battle of Busanjin”, took place here in 1592. Although the Battle of Busanjin ended in total defeat for the Korean forces, through it we see shining brightly the no-retreat, no-surrender spirit of General Jeong Bal, who resisted fiercely despite being short of manpower, food and weapons.
The fortification was partially torn down and rebuilt at the time as a Japanese-style fortress and used as a command centre by Japanese forces. Later, after Korean delegations were dispatched to Japan, it was also used as a site for holding memorial services or banquets for the delegates. All the buildings were torn down during the Japanese Occupation, but restoration work began in 1974, and the current park was completed in 1975.
The park is filled with truly countless traces of history. The Jinnamdae, a terrace once used as a general’s command centre, the General Qian Memorial, which commemorates Ming Dynasty General Qian Wan Li, who took part in the Imjin War, and the General Choi Yeong Memorial, which is a shrine to General Choi, are all located in the park. After seeing the Yeonggadae Pavilion, a restored site located near Busanjin Fortress, you can visit the Joseon Tongsinsa History Museum, which is located behind it. The museum is filled with a variety of things to see and enjoy related to the Korean delegations that were dispatched to Japan 12 times following the Imjin War. Take a look around with your kids.
Jobangap (조방 앞)
Coming out of the Joseon Tongsinsa History Museum, we head toward “Jobangap”. The name “Jobang” is an abbreviation of “Joseon Bangjik” (Joseon Textiles), which was once the Orient’s largest cotton textile company, established by the Japanese Empire in 1917, that was located here until 1968. Joseon Textiles had a bad reputation for its harsh oppression of workers under Japanese colonial rule. A labour movement even arose here as a backlash against the low wages and long working hours in poor conditions. The son of Gwang-u Lee, an independence fighter who was arrested while attempting to destroy Joseon Textiles in 1943, has carried on a one-man protest to get the designation changed, but the name is still in use. Following liberation, the textile factory disappeared, and the facility was used as a lumber warehouse by companies for importing and processing lumber materials.
Today, a variety of traditional markets are gathered here, including Busanjin Market, Freedom Market, Peace Market, and Central Market, and a crowded jewellery district has formed with many jewellery stores. This area, which stretches from Boemil-dong to Munhyeon-dong, has not been developed, so it still has a 70s and 80s vibe to it, which is why it was used as a filming location for the film “Friend”.
Wonjo Halmae Nakji (원조할매낙지, Grandma Wonjo’s Octopus)
It’s said that, even when sightseeing, eating comes first. We’ve seen some things, so now that we are in the Jobangap district, there’s some food we should eat before we go. It’s stir-fried octopus, known as “Jobang Octopus”. The “Jobang” in Jobang Octopus, which anyone who likes octopus dishes is bound to have heard at least once, refers to this place, Jobangap in Beomil-dong. You’ll see a lot of stir-fried octopus restaurants in the area’s back streets, but Busan locals head to one place: Wonjo Halmae Nakji – Grandma Wonjo’s Octopus. You can sense the pride here, beginning with the restaurant’s sign. At most places, there is usually a two-person minimum for hot pot and stir-fried orders, but here, even one-person orders are possible. The prices are also affordable. If you request it when your server brings out your food, they’ll give you dried laver free of charge, which you can eat mixed into your rice.
United Nations Memorial Cemetery (유엔 기념공원)
After a filling meal of spicy stir-fried octopus, the place we’ll head to next is the United Nations Memorial Cemetery. As the only UN military cemetery in the world, this is the resting place of UN military personnel who died for the great cause of world peace and freedom. The cemetery was created by the United Nations Command as a burial ground for its war dead in January 1951, the year after the Korean War broke out. Casualties, who had been temporarily buried at sites all over the country, started to be interred here upon its completion in April of the same year.
The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea passed a resolution in November 1955 designating the land here as sacred ground and donating it to the United Nations in perpetuity as recompense for the sacrifices of UN soldiers. It started with the title United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK, 재한 유엔 기념 묘지), but the Korean name was changed in March 2001 from “cemetery” to “park” to give the space a more comfortable, familiar feel. Even now, it is actually used by many local residents as a walking trail.
Busan Citizens Park (부산 시민공원)
If you already have experienced visiting the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, then let’s visit the Busan Citizens Park, which was newly opened in 2014. This place has historical significance which matches that of the UN cemetery. A horse racing track was set up here by influential Japanese capitalists during the Japanese Occupation, and, from Liberation to 2006, it was used as a base by US Forces in Korea (USFK), whose history it has shared under the name “Camp Hialeah”. After the Korean War, although the USFK Command moved to the Yongsan district of Seoul, Camp Hialeah continued to play an important role as a supply base providing logistical support to the USFK. The role of Camp Hialeah was significant because, geopolitically, the port of Busan has been a gateway for the transportation of military forces and materials.
However, as various civic and social organisations were formed around 1995 to promote the relocation of Camp Hialeah and the return of the land to civilian use, a campaign to convert it into a citizens park picked up momentum. The base was closed in 2006 by a mutual agreement between the United States and South Korea, and the site was reopened on 1 May 2014 as Busan Citizens Park. The changing history of the site and the lives of area residents is on display in great detail at the park museum. Do visit if you’re interested.
Dongbaek Island (동백섬)
Since we’re in Busan, visiting the sea is a must. Although Busan has many beaches, the most well-known is Haeundae Beach. The destination recommended by this author is Dongbaek Island, which is located beside the famous Haeundae Beach. This is the Dongbaek Island mentioned in the song, “Come Back to Busan Port” sung by Jo Yong-pil: “Spring has come to flowering Dongbaek Island.”
The origin of the place name Haeundae goes all the way back to the era of Unified Silla. The Confucian scholar Choi Chi-won, it is said, was passing this way after giving up his government position and leaving the capital. Moved by the exquisite coastal scenery of the place, he engraved characters in a rock on Dongbaek Island. He took the characters from his pen name, Haeun (海雲), and carved the word, Haeundae (海雲臺) meaning Haeun’s Terrace. Existing even now on Dongbaek Island there is a bronze statue of Choi Chi-won, a monument to his poetry and the Haeundae carving that legend says he made himself. The Haeundae Carved Stone is also designated as Busan Metropolitan City Memorial No. 45.
If you take the walkway created on Dongbaek Island, you can see the bronze statue of a mermaid looking out over the ocean. This is the image of Hwang Ok, the Topaz Princess. The tale says that the Topaz Princess came from the land of mermaids, the Kingdom of Miranda, to wed King Eunhye of the Land of Mugung, and to comfort herself in her loneliness she looked on an image of her home reflected in a piece of topaz every night there was a full moon. Some local historians believe that the Topaz Princess was Queen Heo, a princess from the Indian kingdom of Ayodhya who came to marry King Kim Suro of Great Gaya.
If you go past the mermaid statue, following the walkway along the seashore, you’ll see a lighthouse. The entrance right beside the lighthouse leads to Nurimaru, where the APEC summit talks were held. After the APEC talks, the City of Busan opened the interior of the building for free viewing by the public, including the meeting rooms where leaders sat together for the conference and a related gallery. The official photo zone where leaders posed for photographs is preserved unchanged. You can see which heads of state stood where and who was next to them when they were photographed, and you can also enjoy taking pictures in the same spots.
Gwangalli (광안리, Millak Waterside Park (민락 수변 공원))
Let’s end our first day’s schedule at Millak Waterside Park, which is connected to Gwangalli Beach. Millak Waterside Park is the first waterside park in Korea located next to the ocean, and is at a point midway between Haeundae and Gwangalli. This was originally part of the ocean, but the City of Busan turned it into a park to promote local development and for the convenience of residents. With the Gwangan Bridge and its magnificent lights nearby, we can say that the park is the best place to view Busan’s night-scape. In addition to Gwangan Bridge, the skyscrapers of Haeundae’s newly developed area shine brilliantly at night, giving the city a futuristic look. In the summer, many of the city’s residents bring out mats, and relax and cool themselves as they enjoy food delivered by local businesses.
Busan Modern History Museum (부산 근대역사관)
Let’s start the second day of our Busan trip in Nampo-dong and Jungang-dong. Anyone interested in Busan is bound to have heard of at least one of the attractions concentrated here, including BIFF Plaza, the International Market, Yongdusan Park, Jagalchi Market and Bosu Book Street. Before starting the day, I recommend stopping by the Busan Modern History Museum in Jungang-dong for a vivid experience of the city’s past and then taking a look around the area. Once used during the Japanese Occupation as the Busan branch of the Oriental Development Company, the building itself has historical significance. After Liberation, the facility was returned to the South Korean government and used as the American Culture Centre, until it was transformed into the museum of modern history. The modern history of Busan, from the opening of the port to the Japanese Occupation, is vividly displayed at the museum. Some of the exhibits faithfully recreate the area as it was at the time of the Japanese Occupation, giving the impression that you’ve taken a time machine into the past. The museum also has a video-experience room shaped like a tram, allowing you to take a virtual trolley trip so realistic it’s like watching a 3D film.
BIFF Plaza (BIFF 광장)
As we emerge from the modern history museum and seem to return to the present, let’s head toward BIFF Plaza. One by one, theatres started to be built here after Liberation, and a theatre district formed in the 1960s when over 20 such businesses were put up following the Korean War. Time passed and large cinemas started appear. As this happened, the most long-established theatres closed their doors, and new shops appeared. This is also the place where old Dalgu (played by Dal-su Oh) in the popular film “Ode to My Father” boasted that he owned a theatre. The theatre that Dalgu pointed out as one he owned was actually Daeyeong Theatre, established in 1964. It has now changed its name to Daeyeong Cinema, and is proudly being operated amid other large cinemas.
BIFF Plaza in Nampo-dong was created for the opening of the 1996 Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). It was called “PIFF Plaza” in 1996 because the official English spelling of Busan at the time was “Pusan“; but the place was renamed “BIFF Plaza” later when the city’s official spelling was changed to Busan. As it was once a theatre district, the area’s back streets hide many great restaurants with proud histories and traditions. You should use BIFF Plaza as a compass so you don’t lose your way when exploring those back alleys for great restaurants. A delicacy of Busan is “ssiat hotteok” – sweet pancakes stuffed with seeds, which you can enjoy at the roadside stands which line the plaza.
18-beon Wandangjip (18번 완당집, Wonton House No. 18)
18-beon Wandangjip (Wonton House No. 18), with its 65-year tradition, is located on BIFF Street near BIFF Plaza. Wandang (the local pronunciation of wonton) are Chinese-style dumplings, which are smaller and have thinner wrappers than Koreans are used to eating. This business, which has been making wontons since 1948, is so famous that it has even been on TV several times. The founders named their business “Wonton House No. 18” to mean that it’s the place that makes the best wontons, reportedly taking the idea from the Korean habit of calling your favourite tune or the song you sing best your “No. 18”.
Here, you’ll find not only young people who come after hearing about it, but also a lot of elderly men and women, and regulars who come to eat alone. Again, this gives you a sense of the long tradition of the place.
Yeongdo Bridge (영도대교)
Now that we’ve filled our bellies in Nampo-dong, let’s take Yeongdo Bridge over to Yeongdo.
Opened on 23 November 1934 during the Japanese Occupation, Yeongdo Bridge was Busan’s first bridge connecting an island to the mainland. A single-leaf bascule located on the mainland side of the bridge was raised seven times a day back then, and reportedly, many people would gather to watch every time it went up. The Korean War broke out not long after the country welcomed the liberation from Japanese occupation, and Busan was designated the provisional capital. Yeongdo Bridge at that time was the place where refugees from all over the country promised to reunite with their families, and their sorrow lingers here. Originally from Yeongdo, the singer Hyeon In touched the hearts of many then when he published the pop song “Be Strong, Geum-Soon!”, filled with the joys and sorrows of the refugees.
The operation of the drawbridge was discontinued in September 1966 due to increased traffic from the growing population of Yeongdo-gu, but it was started up again in November 2013 and now is seen as a Busan tourist attraction. The drawbridge is raised once a day at noon.
Once called “Jeolyeongdo”, what is now the Yeongdo-gu district of Busan was famous for its fine horses. Even the name, “Jeolyeongdo” – which uses the “jeol” character for “cut” or “break away” and the “yeong” character for “shadow” – derives from the fine horses that were a speciality feature of the island. It means “island of horses so fast they break away from their own shadows”.
Jeolyeong Coastal Walk (절영 해안 산책로)
Crossing Yeongdo Bridge and going a little further along the waterfront brings you to the Jeolyeong Coastal Walk. As the name suggests, it’s a trail created along the coastline. Although it was difficult to access in the past because it contained a military reservation where the land was steep and dangerous, it has been turned into a walkway for citizens. There are plenty of charming attractions along the walkway, including a stone tower, wall paintings, the Rose Tunnel, Wave Square, and Rainbow Fountain. Off to the right you’ll see the ocean full of ships waiting to enter port.
If you’re lucky, you might encounter women divers and get a chance to purchase freshly caught seafood. If the ocean-front at Haeundae has a touristy or resort vibe, then here it has the pungent feel of a fishing village or a port city.
Yeongdo 75 Square (영도 75 광장)
Stroll for a while along the Jeolyeong Coastal Walk, watching ships floating on the sea, and you’ll come across a place named 75 Square. It’s called 75 Square because it was built in 1975. From here you can view the wide-open sea without necessarily going up to Taejongdae Park, which is already a crowded tourist destination. Gazing out over the ocean from a walkway gazebo will melt away any heaviness of heart you might feel.
Baekkudang (백구당, White Gull)
Let’s head to a place that will shine some light on travellers whose energy has been depleted by a long walk. It’s Baekkudang, which has a 55-year tradition, making it the oldest bakery in Busan. Even OPS – a very famous bakery among Busan’s bread lovers – is said to have learned its secrets here. The name of the shop, Baekkudang, means “white gull”. Jungang-dong, which is where Busan’s government offices and financial institutions were concentrated in the 1960s, was the political and economic heart of the city. Handling the luxury Western-style pastries available only to the wealthy at the time, Baekkudang was a very high-end store. Although it changed its name to “Nyu-Pari Yangkwa” (New York-Paris Western Pastries) in the early 1970s, it later went back to its original name of Baekkudang.
It’s now popular with foreign tourists and young people, as well as those who have been regular customers for decades, and it proudly maintains its reputation, never letting itself get behind in competition with the big corporate franchise bakeries. The distinguishing characteristic and advantage of the store is that, here, you can find everything from pastries that will stir up old memories, like cream-filled and red-bean buns, to recently popular items, like cream cheese doughnuts and brownies. Let’s leave with an armful of sweet pastries to relieve the weary travellers on the way home.
Not long ago, I took my grandmother to see the film, “Ode to My Father”. Unlike the writer, who wept and sniffled throughout the film, Grandma calmly watched the screen. Afterwards, still wearing a placid expression on her face, Grandma said something to me. “You’re a big girl, so why are you crying? That kind of thing happened all the time back then.”
I had always just thought of Busan as a warm, attractive city. But it has had an extremely difficult journey, the kind where the things you might see in a film happen all the time. Perhaps Busan is so attractive to us now because it has steadfastly endured its long walk down an arduous path.
Article/Photographs by Je-gyeong Lee
1. Samjin Eomuk (삼진어묵, Samjin Fish Cakes), Busan Station Store
Located next to ticket sales, second floor, Busan Station.
Business Hours: 6:30 am – 10:30 pm
2. Joseon Tongsinsa History Museum (조선통신사역사관)
Address: 380-4 Beomil 2(i)-dong, Dong-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there (from Busan Station): Bus Nos. 26, 41, 167, 1003 (get off at Jaseongdae)
3. Jobangap (조방앞)
4. Wonjo Halmae Nakji (원조할매낙지, Grandma Wonjo’s Octopus)
Address: 837-42 Beomcheon 1(il)-dong, Busanjin-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there: Walk three minutes from Exit 10 of Beomil Station, Busan Metro Line 1
5. United Nations Memorial Cemetery (유엔기념공원)
Address: 799 Daeyeon 4(sa)-dong, Nam-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there (from Jobangap): Bus Nos. 68, 138, 134 (get off at UN Cemetery)
6. Busan Citizens Park (부산시민공원)
Address: 195 Beomjeon-dong, Busanjin-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there (from Jobangap): Bus No. 83-1 (get off at Busan National Gugak centre)
7. Dongbaek Island (동백섬)
8. Nurimaru APEC House (누리마루APEC하우스)
Address: 116 (U-dong) Dongbaek-ro, Haeundae, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there (from theUnited Nations Memorial Cemetery): 138 (get off at Motgol Market) -> 1003 (get off at entrance to Dongbaek Island)
9. Gwangalli (광안리, Millak Waterside Park (민락 수변 공원))
Address: 110 Millak-dong, Suyeong-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there (from Nurimaru): Take express bus from Dongbaek Island entrance 1003 → Get off at Suyeong-ro intersection, then transfer to regular bus 210→ Get off at Millak Waterside Park bus stop
10. Busan Modern History Museum (부산 근대역사관)
Address: 99 Daecheongdong 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there: Two blocks to the right of International Market
11. BIFF Plaza (BIFF 광장)
Address: BIFF gwangjang-ro, Jung-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there: Take Busan Metro Line 1 to Jagalchi Station, leave through Exit 7 and go forwards approximately 100 metres. The plaza is located on the left.
12. 18-beon Wandangjip (18번 완당집, Wonton House No. 18)
Address: 1 Nampodong 3(sam)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
13. Yeongdo Bridge (영도대교)
14. Jeolyeong Coastal Walk (절영해안산책로)
Address: Yeongseondong 4(sa)-ga, Yeongdo-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there: (from Jagalchi Market) Take bus Nos. 7, 71, or 6 -> Get off at Busan Healthcare High School bus stop
(from Yeongdo Bridge) Take bus Nos. 508 or 85 -> Get off at Busan Healthcare High School bus stop
15. Yeongdo 75 Square (영도75광장)
Address: Dongsam-dong, Yeongdo-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there: (from Jagalchi Market) Take bus Nos. 7 or 71 -> Get off at 75 Square bus stop
(from Yeongdo Bridge) Take bus No. 508 -> Get off at 75 Square bus stop
**From the start of Jeolyeong Coastal Walk, if you follow the trail, you’ll come to 75 Square.**
16. Baekkudang (백구당, White Gull)
Address: 31-1 Jungang-dong, Jung-gu, Busan-gwangyeoksi
Getting there: Walk five minutes from Exit 13 of Jungang Station, Busan Metro Line 1