There’s an awful lot to like about BUSAN (부산), Korea’s second city, which has emerged from the provincial shadows full of pep and character. By turns brackish, glamorous, clumsy and charismatic, it prides itself on simply being different from Seoul, and many travellers end up preferring it to the capital. The locals alone make it worth a visit: more characterful than those from the capital, Busanites talk almost as fast as their city moves, spouting provincial slang in a distinctive staccato that many foreigners initially mistake for Japanese.
Busan is not just Korea’s second-biggest city, but the fifth-largest container port in the world – its salty fringes tumble away into a colourful, confetti-like jumble of corrugated containers. This connection to the sea is evident at two of Busan’s most visited areas – Haeundae, a busy stretch of beach sprinkled with five-star hotels, and Jagalchi Fish Market, quite possibly the smelliest place on earth. There are plenty of temples and mountains to amble around, and you can shop till you drop at a variety of places from grimy markets to designer shopping malls. In the evenings, the setting sun throws the ships into cool silhouette on a sea of gold, and Busan’s youth come out to paint the town red. While the nightlife here is second only to that in Seoul, for sheer verve there’s no contest – Busan is the champion.
Even before it became the whirring economic dynamo that it is today, Busan played a pivotal role in the country’s history. Though it was once part of the short-lived Gaya kingdom swallowed whole by the Silla dynasty, it was at that time little more than a collection of fishing villages. In the fifteenth century it benefited from its proximity to Japan, when a trade treaty opened it up as a port to international trade – up until that point, most goods had been leaving the area as loot on pirate ships. This competitive advantage promptly swung around and hit Busan squarely in the face when the city was attacked by the Japanese in 1592; under the astute leadership of Admiral Yi Sun-shin damage was limited, but still devastating.
Outside Busan’s largest museum is a stone “stele of anti-compromise”, whose Chinese characters read “All countrymen are hereby warned that anyone who does not fight against the Western barbarians is committing an act of treachery”. Little did they know that Korea would eventually be consumed by its closest neighbour – the Japanese annexed the peninsula in 1910 – then fight a bloody civil war, only to be bailed out both times by said barbarians. Busan was at the forefront of the Korean War; indeed, for a time, the city and its surrounding area were the only places left under Allied control, the North Koreans having occupied the peninsula up to what was known as the Pusan Perimeter (Pusan being the correct romanization at the time). At this point, up to four million refugees from elsewhere on the peninsula crowded the city, before General Douglas MacArthur made a bold move at Incheon to reverse the tide of the war.