Residents waiting for a tank landing shipProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
The Korean War and refugees in Busan
Busan was home to many refugees during the Korean War. When the war broke out, about 160,000 refugees flocked to the city, which had not been touched by the conflict. Later, during the January 4 Retreat in 1951, the UN and Republic of Korea forces withdrew from Seoul, which they had only recently regained in the Incheon Landing Operation the previous year. The South Korean government also had to leave the city, and another 260,000 refugees fled to Busan around this time.
Refugees waiting for the southbound trainProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
As of March 1951, the regions with the highest numbers of refugees in Busan were Seoul (165,878), Gyeonggi (32,599), and North Korea (33,891), followed by Gyeongnam and Gangwon. They moved south on foot, in carts, or by boat or freight train.
Refugees walking along the railroad tracks in cold weatherProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
During the war, the main roads were controlled by UN forces, so refugees often detoured to secondary roads or mountain trails. Most of the refugees suffered great hardship due to a lack of adequate food and the bitter cold as they fled. Many refugees froze to death, particularly during the January 4 Retreat.
Refugees crossing the Taedong River in PyongyangProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
Significantly, many of the refugees who moved to Busan were from North Korean. Republic of Korea and US forces had been engaging in fierce battles with communist forces near the 38th parallel border between North and South Korea since April 1951. During the resulting stalemate, most of the refugees returned to their hometowns, but those from North Korea were still unable to leave Busan.
View of Heungnam pier with a pile of supplies waiting to be transportedProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
Among the North Korean refugees, those from Hamgyeong Province had the most dramatic journey to Busan. In October 1950, the situation worsened as the Chinese Communist Army entered the Korean War. In December that year, Republic of Korea and UN forces carried out an evacuation operation from Heungnam port, which is 7.5 miles (12 km) from Hamheung, the capital of South Hamgyong Province in North Korea.
Refugees boarding a tank landing ship (LST) at Heungnam PierProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
About 105,000 Republic of Korea and UN forces gathered in Heungnam, and hundreds of thousands of refugees flocked there when the US forces decided to withdraw. Wonsan, which is south of Heungnam, was occupied by the communists, so the only way for these refugees to travel was by the communists, so the only way for these refugees to travel was by sea.
Refugees waiting to board the SS Meredith VictoryProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
A US merchant marine ship, the SS Meredith Victory, was used to evacuate the refugees who had gathered in Hamheung, in South Hamgyong Province. Although the vessel had a maximum capacity of 2,000 people, it was carrying around 14,000 refugees when it left Heungnam port.
President Syngman Rhee and the First Lady with refugees on Geoje IslandProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
After leaving Heungnam on the SS Meredith Victory and several other ships, the refugees were taken in by several regions, including Ulsan, Masan, Uljin, Mukho, and Geoje, as well as Busan. Some of the refugees who arrived in other areas relocated to Busan after the armistice, when food aid was reduced and their standard of living deteriorated. For example, many refugees from Hamgyeong-do who came to Geoje in South Korea later moved on to Busan.
Busan refugee campProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
The growth in refugees and shacks
The government and city of Busan needed somewhere to house the refugees who flocked to Busan, so they used theaters, factories, inns, and even private homes. However, only a few refugees were able to access this accommodation. Refugees who could not find accommodation or a room to rent built their homes on vacant lots, on mountain slopes, and along the coast. After roughly leveling out the land, they used cardboard boxes, boards, and straw mats that they gathered to make temporary dwellings or shacks.
Children from the Uam-dong refugee camp lining up to receive foodProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
The refugees had to find their own places to live because they were unable to find accommodation or rent a room. They built their homes on vacant lots, on mountain slopes, and along the coast. After roughly leveling out the land, they used cardboard boxes, boards, and straw mats that they gathered to make temporary dwellings or shacks.
Refugee camp in BusanProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
The government and city of Busan needed somewhere to house the refugees who had gathered in Busan, so they used theaters, factories, inns, and even private homes. However, only a few refugees were able to access this accommodation. Some had the money to find a house to live in, but most could not, because so many people fled to Busan in such a short period of time that rents skyrocketed.
Children in a refugee campProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
They lived in shacks made of cardboard boxes, boards, and straw mats. These shacks sprang up everywhere, filling the city center, wharf, areas around large markets (such as Gukje Market), Yongdusan Mountain, Bokbyeongsan Mountain, Yeongju-dong, Choryang-dong, Sujeong-dong, the Bosu stream, and Yeongdo Beach.
View of a refugee settlement near the Bujeoncheon streamProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
Most of them were poorly built and people struggled against the heat and cold. Moreover, wherever shacks suddenly sprang up to form hillside villages, or along beaches and rivers, there were always a lot of problems with traffic, sanitation, and water supply, which had a negative impact on the lives of refugees.
View of Gukje MarketProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
But shacks were more than just an inconvenience in their living situation. In the 1950s, Busan suffered several fires (both large and small), which often occurred at Gukje Market, Busan Station, and Yongdusan Park. The shacks acted as kindling and were one of the main causes of these fires.
Students of the Seoul National University College of Medicine taking a class at a refugee school in BusanProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
Despite the unstable and harsh conditions during the war, refugees were willing to send their children to school and the students worked hard.
Most universities across the country were closed when the Korean War broke out. With the war at a deadlock near the 38th parallel, the government published the Guidelines for Special Measures for Education During Wartime in February 1951. With those, the government established the University of Warfare in four cities including Busan, Gwangju, Jeonju, and Daejeon, and took measures to prevent a shortage of professors and classes. After September 1951, as the war continued, several prestigious universities in Seoul established and operated refugee schools in Busan, including Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Ewha Women's University, and Konkuk University.
Students at a school for refugeesProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
After that, middle schools and elementary schools in other regions also established and operated refugee schools in Busan. The number of refugee elementary schools in the city had reached 24 by December 1951. Some of these schools were designated refugee elementary schools and only received refugee students, but most of the existing elementary schools in Busan organized and operated classes exclusively for refugee children from Seoul. In February 1951, in line with government measures, middle schools and elementary schools in other regions also started to establish and operate refugee schools in Busan. By December 1951, the number of refugee elementary schools registered in the city was 24, and the number of students was 21,630.
Students attending class outdoorsProvisional Capital Memorial Hall
During the war, most school buildings in the Busan area were requisitioned for military services or hospitals. For this reason, a significant number of refugee schools set up spaces and delivered classes in the mountains or in the open air, by erecting tents or temporary buildings. None of the schools had enough desks, chairs, or textbooks, and there were always only a small number of teachers because many of them had been conscripted into the army. Despite the unstable and harsh conditions during the war, refugees were willing to send their children to school, and the students studied hard.