As a rare piece of territory not captured by the North during the Korean War, Busan offers a vibrant contrast to Seoul’s modernity. So why are former residents so dismissive of their home city?
Just as Changwon brands itself the ‘Young City’, other Korean conurbations come with slogans of their own. Seoul, of course, has a few: ‘Hi Seoul, Soul of Asia’ is an awkward English one; only marginally better is the Korean slogan which translates as: ‘The Seoul We Create Together, the Seoul We Enjoy Together.’
But nowhere is as zealous about its self-applied label than Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, located all the way across the country on its southeastern coast. Maps, buses, construction sites: all periodically remind us that we are in ‘Dynamic Busan, City of Tomorrow’.
This slogan strikes me as, in equal parts, apt and mistaken. While I feel bullish about Busan’s future, that has nothing to do with the seaside metropolis’s firm grasp on the 21st century. The appeal of Busan – indeed, a reason to prefer it over Seoul – comes not from what it offers as a city of tomorrow, but what it offers as a city of yesterday.
As a rare piece of territory not captured by the Northern army during the Korean War, Busan came through the 1950s intact, serving during wartime as the capital of the Republic of Korea. The city incurred far less involuntary demolition in that era, so has endured a less thoroughgoing redevelopment since. If you are seeking ‘old’ urban South Korea, you’ll find it here – or at least, more of it than elsewhere.
Some of Busan’s built environments still look even more aggressively new than those in Seoul. I think specifically of the three shiny, rippling towers – one of them the tallest residential building in the world – that make up the oddly-named We’ve The Zenith complex. Commissioned by well-known conglomerate Doosan, it went up three years ago in Haeundae, the slickest and most recently developed of Busan’s seven beach districts. Renting an electric bicycle and zipping around the the surrounding Marine City neighbourhood felt, to me, like the height of urban modernity. Yet that high-speed pedalling also took me to one of the highest concentrations in South Korea of pojangmacha, those ad hoc, plastic-roofed bar and grills gradually disappearing from the streets of Seoul.
I began to wonder why so many of the friends from Busan I’ve made in Los Angeles’s Koreatown are so dismissive of their hometown of 3.6 million. If you pulled it out of South Korea and put it down in America, it would immediately rank as one of my country’s most exciting and desirable cities. Friends, from Korea and abroad, have all concurred with my observation that foreigners, not particularly concerned and sometimes barely aware of the status hierarchy of cities here, appreciate Busan more than the Koreans do themselves.
Talk often enough to groups of East Asia-based expats, especially while drinking, and you eventually get the sense that some have come to believe they know their host country better than do its own people. Unsavory though that line of thinking may sound, I find some truth in it; if I want to hear America accurately described, I seek out the perspective of anyone but my countrymen. Failing that, I talk to Americans with an international outlook – the very outlook becoming more and more common among each new generation of South Koreans.
In order to pull off its ‘economic miracle’ – and despite the hyperbole endemic to South Korea’s self-promotion, ‘miracle’ doesn’t strike me as too strong a word – the country spent a few intense decades prioritising west over east, new over old, and Seoul over everywhere else. But this drive has long since put food on the table, and brought much other prosperity besides. The time may now have come to savour the real things that have long existed here, especially those previously written off as too old, insufficiently trendy, or too specifically Korean.
South Korean architect Minsuk Cho, winner of the Golden Lion for best pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, has given a lot of thought to the scope and future of urban life in his homeland. His firm Mass Studies has designed buildings not just in Seoul but all over the country, all the way down to Jeju Island, 50 miles from the southern coast. His team’s Korean pavilion embodied a meditation on what Southern and Northern architecture could one day achieve together. Born in the South Korean ‘baby boom’ of the mid-1960s and witness to so much rapid change and concentration there, does Cho also foresee a process of ‘de-Seoulisation’?
“It’s already happening in many ways,” he tells me during a chat at Mass Studies’ Itaewon office. “Last year, for the first time, there was a shrinkage in population – a couple of thousand people.” Increasingly, he says, “there are drop outs”: South Koreans (albeit already well-to-do ones) who eschew the struggle for the popularly approved address, school and lifestyle, are leaving the capital to go their own way.
Filmgoers, foreign and Korean alike, have long had an appreciation for Busan. The Pusan International Film Festival began humbly in the mid-1990s – back when the official Romanisation system still had Busan spelled with a P – but has since become one of the most important film festivals in Asia. That, plus the presence of a variety of shoot-ready backdrops, from high-rises to mountains to seashores, gave Busan a reputation as a ‘film town’ – one the city has since looked for ways to live up to. In one momentously de-Seoulising move, the Korean Film Council relocated its office to Busan last year.
But this movement extends well beyond cinephiles and scattered bohemians. In 2011, Mass Studies designed a new Jeju Island headquarters for the major web portal company Daum, which has decided to “gradually move its entire operation” there, far from any big city. “It’s not the story of American suburbia,” says Cho, who describes Daum as seeking “a new way of life”. “The last 50 years have been all about the migration to Seoul. Now a significant company, one very well known to the general public, has made the reverse migration.”
Smaller cities, too, “have all tried to be [more] interesting, so they come up with their own rock festivals, apple festivals, something about ginseng, musems, theme parks. [Yet they] all try to be Seoul, and all apply the same formula.”
In my experience, some of the places of greatest urban interest in South Korea not only don’t resemble Seoul, but arose out of social, historical, or geographical circumstances that made it impossible to do so. Take Gamcheon Culture Village, where my urbanist’s tour of the country comes to its end. Built overlooking the sea on the hills that rise above Busan, Gamcheon consists of hundreds of tiny, colourful houses, shops and other buildings of less clear function, all set cheek-by-jowl and only accessed through a maze of winding, stairway-punctuated ‘streets’ too narrow to accommodate even the most compact car.
Most of it developed during and just after the war, when the relative safety of Busan made it the prime destination for refugees who proceeded to make for the hills to build makeshift homes anywhere and any way they could. At the same time, it grew subject to the organising force of Taegukdo, a fringe Korean religion whose adherents moved en masse to Gamcheon and gave the village its deceptively organised system of dense, terraced construction.
After spending most of the 20th century as one of Busan’s poorest areas, Gamcheon began a transformation in 2009 under a Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism project called ‘Dreaming of Busan Machu Picchu’. Five years on, much has changed in Gamcheon, though it only really resembles Machu Picchu in the sense that it attracts curious visitors from all over the world. They come to see how the village, now covered with murals and sculptures (dozens of human-faced birds, life-size denizens of an old-time bathhouse, elaborate three-dimensional optical illusions) and fitted out with galleries, has turned into a living art installation. The village brings in artists to redecorate its empty houses as striking and strange attractions, open to any of the public who visit between 9am and 5pm.
As an experiment in a very different kind of city life, Gamcheon Culture Village – without a skyscraper, massive monument, or subway station in sight – provided an ideal place for reflection on the potential variety of the South Korean urban experience. These people surprised us when, in the second half of the 20th century, they became metropolitans with such speed, industriousness and wholeheartedness. In the first half of the 21st century, as their metropolitanism turns cosmopolitan, as they engage more meaningfully with the wider world as well as with their own history, they’ll surely surprise us again.