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The Busan Museum

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Opened in 1978 at the western end of the U.N. Park in Daeyeon, the Busan Museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the city and its region, from paleolithic times to the modern day. We visited recently and found it to be the perfect rainy-day activity.


Busan Museum is quite large, well-organized and, like most museums in the city, completely free. Busan as a city has a relatively recent story; up until the late 19th century, it was a mere fishing village, nowhere near as important as nearby Gyeongju or Daegu. Not until 1876, when its port was opened to international trade, did Busan become a city of any importance.

But that doesn’t mean that its history isn’t interesting. Starting in the late Paleolithic period, with the first documented appearance of humanity around the mouth of the Nakdong, visitors are slowly brought to the modern age. There are two floors of fascinating exhibits which have excellent English translations and shed a light on life in the various phases of Korean history.


Our favorite section detailed the period of the Three Kingdoms (around 57 AD – 668), when the various tribes of the peninsula were organizing themselves for the first time. One exhibit showed how the people of that day used primitive body-modification techniques to give themselves flat foreheads or pointy feet. On the second floor of the museum, there’s a room dedicated entirely to the relationship of the Japanese to Busan, which is more even-handed (and therefore, more interesting) than the “Japan=Villain” equations of the Modern History Museum.

How much enjoyment you get out of this museum is entirely a function of your interest in history. Nicely presented, informative and with plenty of information in English, we thought it was well done.

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July 19, 2012 at 10:01 am Comments (2)

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery

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Hands down the most somber place we’ve visited thus far in Busan, the United Nations Memorial Cemetery pays tribute to the international brigade of soldiers who died defending the Republic of Korea against the forces of communism. Sixteen nations are represented here, and the cemetery is a melancholy reminder of the costs of war.


Despite the cemetery’s gloom, it’s a sublimely beautiful place, with perfectly manicured lawns and niwaki-shaped junipers lining the walkways. The graves themselves are laid out in a highly regimented fashion, grouped together by nation. It’s not hard to imagine platoons of soldiers lined up in their place, awaiting a final set of orders.

In the US, the Korean War is among the least heralded of conflicts. It’s the one almost always skipped over in history class, and is often referred to as “The Forgotten War”. Even at the time, most Americans didn’t understand the reasons behind the fighting, and many just tuned it out. Too complicated, too remote to think about… much like our engagement in Afghanistan is today. But the cost to the USA was considerable. As the UN moved to protect Korea against the sudden Soviet-backed incursion, America provided 88% of the international troops and suffered a severe number of casualties.

I was struck dumb as went by the Wall of Remembrance, where the names of the foreign soldiers who lost their lives are etched. 36,492 American names are found here, alphabetically by state. The sheer amount of space it takes to record that number of names is astonishing. Walking along the wall and reading out some of the names, I felt myself growing ashamed; I was squarely among those who don’t know much of anything about the Korean War. And that was something I swore to change.

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May 13, 2012 at 3:15 am Comments (0)

A Concise History of Busan… or Is it Pusan?

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Busan or Pusan? The name is spelled both ways on signs around the city. Before arriving, I’d have bet that the official name was Pusan, but I would have been wrong. In 2000, a new method of transliterating Korean was implemented and the name changed overnight to “Busan”. The Korean character ㅂ represents both “b” and “p” (which, when you think about it, are nearly the same letter anyway). For the city’s residents, there’s no change at all. 부산 remains 부산.

Busan History

To my ears, “Pusan” sounds more like what people are actually saying, but it’s a close call. Regardless, Busan is a lot easier for Western tongues than the city’s original name, Geochilsanguk! Here’s a quick look at Busan’s long, tumultuous history:

Prehistory The earliest evidence of humanity in Busan dates from around 18000 BC. Pottery and shell middens mostly found along rivers and the coast indicate a fishing-based society.
2nd Century AD The town is organized for the first time as “Geochilsanguk”, under the administration of the Jinhan Confederacy.
757 After being absorbed into the powerful dynasty of Silla, the city’s name is changed to Dongnae, still the name of one of Busan’s neighborhoods. Silla was one of the Three Kingdoms of ancient Korea.
10th Century The Goryeo Dynasty (whose name would evolve into “Korea”) had succeeded in uniting the Three Kingdoms, and renames Dongnae to Busan-po. “Busan-” means “kettle”, referring to the shape of the city’s mountain, and “-po” means “harbor”.
15th Century Busan is designated an official trading post with Japan, leading to the formation of a large Japanese population in the city.
1592 Busan becomes the scene for the opening strike in the Imjin War, during which Japan invades Korea. The Japanese have a new technology in firearms, and overrun the city in two days.
1876 Busan becomes Korea’s first international port, and the city expands rapidly from a fishing village into a major center of commerce.
1910-1945 In 1910, Korea was annexed by an aggressive imperial Japan. Not the finest moment for the country, but Busan flourished under the Japanese administration, and technological innovations not seen in the rest of Korea are introduced here.
1946 Following WWII, Koreans are outraged by the unilateral Allied decision to split the country into two protectorates (American to the south, Soviet to the north). Railroad workers in Busan strike, kicking off the Autumn Uprising, which quickly spreads throughout the country.
Korean War Busan serves as Korea’s provincial capital, after most of the peninsula falls under Communist control. The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter lasts 45 days, sees 120,000 casualties and ends in a successful US-led defense of the city.
N. Korean POWS in Busan
(Dept of Defense)
1995 After a period of steady post-war economic progress and urban development, Busan is promoted to a Metropolitan City, giving it the same status as a province.

And Beyond… Construction continues in Busan at a furious pace, with giant retail stores, housing, and business centers sprouting up all over. It’s hard to imagine Busan sprawling out even further, but we probably shouldn’t underestimate the city’s hard-working, optimistic populace.

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May 9, 2012 at 12:18 am Comments (2)
The Busan Museum Opened in 1978 at the western end of the U.N. Park in Daeyeon, the Busan Museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the city and its region, from paleolithic times to the modern day. We visited recently and found it to be the perfect rainy-day activity.
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