Neon street lights near Bupyeong Market. Busan, South Korea. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
A Tale of Two Cities
In December 2014, I moved from Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital and the largest city on the eastern coast of Ireland, to Busan, South Korea’s second most populated city on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. On the surface, the cities couldn’t look more different. Around 335,000 people live in Belfast, whereas Busan is home to approximately 3.6 million. Shops often close at 5:30 p.m. in Belfast, if they didn’t close for good during the economic crisis, and streets are often quiet and empty from the early evening onward. Shops in Busan open until at least 10 p.m., with some staying open 24/7, and thus people move around the streets until late at night. Speaking of moving: Belfast’s public transport, with all due respect, is nothing to write home about. Cycling or walking are often the better alternative. Busan, on the other hand, has four subway lines and countless city, express and late night buses, taking you anywhere at any time. Daily life is quite different in these two cities, but there are some similarities, too.
Economy and unemployment
Both cities are famous seaports. Belfast Harbour is legendary for the construction of the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard (click image to enlarge). Today, it handles over two thirds of Northern Ireland’s sea borne trade and approximately one quarter of the entire island’s. Busan Harbour, home to the renowned Hanjin shipyard, is the largest port in South Korea and one of the world’s ten busiest by cargo tonnage. But while Busan’s economy seems prosperous and post-Troubles Belfast has experienced substantial economic growth, youth unemployment is a major problem in both cities. Northern Ireland’s overall unemployment rate of 4.0 percent (November 2017) is slightly higher than that of South Korea, where 3.7 percent (October 2017) are unemployed. While the recent drop to the 4 percent mark represented the first time since 2013 that the rate has been below the UK average (4.3%), the economic inactivity rate rose to its highest percentage since 2010 (28.9%), pointing to “deeply rooted weaknesses in the economy”, according to Dr. Esmond Birnie, senior economist at Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre. (There is also concern about the widening divergence in Northern Ireland’s male and female unemployment rates.) The rate of youth unemployment is dramatically higher in both countries. In Northern Ireland, the rate currently stands at 10 percent (October 2017), a considerable drop from 14.4% earlier this year. (Back in 2014, I found a source indicating that the youth unemployment rate in Belfast is generally lower than Northern Ireland’s average but I could not locate said source anymore.) The current rate represents a considerable drop from a whopping 25 percent back in the third quarter of 2013. South Korea’s youth unemployment rate first surpassed the 10 percent threshold back in 2014. Official data for 2016 showed that 9.8 percent of Korean youth were unemployed, suggesting that nothing has improved there. A 2006 report for the OECD stated that “Busan’s jobless rate being higher than the nation’s average has been an ongoing trend for the last ten years”, and recent data seems to confirm this, with Busan’s unemployment rate hovering slightly above 5 percent (September 2017). Meanwhile, Korea’s youth unemployment continues to rise (11.2 percent as of April 2017), with that in Busan perhaps being even higher.
Both Belfast and Busan have gained increasing popularity in the world of TV and film. The Paint Hall, originally part of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, is now one of the largest film studios in Europe, comprising four stages over 1,000m². The internationally highly acclaimed Game of Thrones series is being filmed there (see video below). The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), first held in 1996, has quickly become one of the most significant film festivals in Asia, with a strong focus on first-time directors. (Side note: 2017 marked the first time that films by female directors opened and closed the festival.) Since 2011, the festival is held at the Busan Cinema Center, covering over 30,000m² under two eye-catching cantilever roofs, which are clad with over 40,000 LEDs (see video below).
Finally, let’s briefly compare the two cities’ climate. I’ve noticed that quite a few people seem to think that South Korea might be a rather warm destination they could escape to during cold winters. However, the average temperatures in Belfast and Busan are more or less the same during the winter, with Belfast’s ranging from 4 to 5°C (39-41°F) between December and February, and Busan’s from 3 to 6°C (37-43°F). The rain is what makes the difference. Whereas Belfast experiences an average of 80mm of rainfall during all winter months, Busan experiences between 30mm in December and January and 50mm in February. It peaks during the summer, however, when Busan’s average temperature goes up to 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit) and up to 300mm of rain create a somewhat cooler version of a humid subtropical climate. You might then prefer to summer in Belfast, where the average temperature reaches only 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) and the rainfall is pretty much the same all year round. The grass may be greener in Belfast, but I’m still always happy when I get to spend time in Busan.