With just hours remaining before I was due to fly home from Busan, I ventured out for one last round of sightseeing right in the city centre. My final target: a modest house of brick and tile, the refined simplicty of which almost seems to mask the important role it played in Korea’s modern history.
I rode Line 1 of the city metro to Toseong Station, the fourth stop west from Busan Station.
After emerging back onto street level, I headed north and turned left into a quiet side street that sloped gently upwards…
…before eventually turning right into another street and resuming my northerly heading. The change in paving material – from simple, unadorned ceramic tile to a patterned surface composed of alternating bands of stone blocks – seemed to hint at the significance of the landmark I was steadily approaching.
Not long afterwards, I entered a walled compound shaded by trees. At its centre, an old house with red brick walls and a roof covered in dark grey tiles.
It might not look like much, but the Provisional Capital Memorial Hall (임시수도기념관) – which isn’t even a hundred years old – once witnessed a succession of key events in the formative years of the modern-day republic. Built in 1926 by the colonial administration of Japanese-ruled Korea, the house was originally designed to serve as the official residence of the governor of Keishōnan-dō (the Japanese name by which Gyeongsangnam-do was known at the time). Busan had been designated the provincial capital a year earlier, replacing the late-Joseon Era capital of Jinju, and the completion of the governor’s mansion served to highlight the city’s new status as the seat of the local government.
The house continued to function as the provincial governor’s residence even after Korea gained independence from Japan. In 1950, the Korean War broke out on the divided peninsula, and within weeks the rapidly advancing Northern armies had effectively corraled the South and its allies into a small chunk of territory surrounding Busan.
President Ri Seungman (or Syngman Rhee as he’s better known) arrived in Busan on 02 July 1950, with the rest of the government transferring there from Seoul a couple of weeks later. By 18 August, all units of the Southern bureaucracy had evacuated to the port city. On 03 January 1951, Busan was designated as the provisional capital of Korea, and would remain in that capacity until the end of hostilities and the government’s final return to Seoul on 15 August 1953. The house then reverted to its original purpose as the provincial governor’s residence, finally retiring from duty in 1983 when Changwon became the new capital of Gyeongsangnam-do. (Busan had, in fact, already been carved out of the province to become a directly-administered city two decades prior.)
Speaking of Syngman Rhee, there’s the chap himself – well, a replica of him anyway – sitting in the study that served as his presidential office for much of the Korean War.
Now then, let’s have a look at the rest of the building. It’s quite large as houses go, but certainly seems like a long step down from what one would expect of a head of state’s official residence. A reflection, one might say, of the reduced (indeed desperate) circumstances that the nascent republic found itself in so soon after its birth.
That said, I personally think that it’s a fine example of pre-war architecture, and one could easily envision the provincial governors and their families living very comfortably in these refined surroundings. One might also note a subtle hint of Japanese influence on the house’s design and appointments, reflecting its origins under the rule of Korea’s onetime colonial master.
The exhibits continue on the second floor, accessed by way of the house’s well-lit main staircase. (The walls on either side did strike me as being sorely in need of repair; I do hope those cracks aren’t structural.)
Part of the second floor is fitted with large display cases housing exhibits related to Busan’s role as the provisional capital. Amongst the artefacts on show are a number of personal effects that once belonged to Syngman Rhee and his wife.
Now then, let’s step outside and take a few moments to admire the exteriors of the house.
There’s a separate exhibition hall a short walk away, within the walls of the same compound. Inside, amongst several other displays…
…I saw this full-sized reproduction of a wartime shanty hammered together from scrap wood and other odds and ends. More than anything else, this helped drive home the extremely desperate circumstances and appalling living conditions that Koreans of the war era had to endure.
Standing on the grassy lawn behind the exhibition hall was yet another reminder of those difficult times: a replica wartime emergency schoolhouse, fashioned out of an army tent.
Picture yourself as a child taking lessons in this makeshift classroom, either in the depths of winter or the high heat of summer. If the scene doesn’t kindle so much as a shred of respect for the people of that generation, I don’t know what else will.
And so ends this latest Korean adventure. For my next series, we’re backtracking a few weeks to an earlier castle-hunting expedition in Japan, before zooming forwards to a longer holiday in northern Japan.