Thursday, June 02, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 31: The New Address System

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


The address system in Korea is changing. What does it mean?

Addresses in England... versus Korea

In England addresses are organized into house numbers, street names, areas – which are a bit like a ‘gu’ - city, county and then postcode, or zip code as it’s called in the U.S. Street names are random – more or less – and the house numbers are fairly logical, starting at 1-3-5 on one side of the road and 2-4-6 on the other. Letters are sorted by house number of postcode, so they are easy to find.

In Korea addresses have the city and the district which is what you’d expect, but then it gets rather strange. Buildings are given lot numbers in the order the property was built – a system introduced by the occupying Japanese in 1910. So of course, once you’re in an area finding the actual building – given that the numbers are randomly scattered around – is quite difficult.

Each road in the UK has a street name – usually given on a big sign at the start of a road, unless it’s been stolen. I used to drive around London quite a bit back in 1994, which was largely pre-satnav, so I had a book called an ‘A-Z’ with an index of street names in it – which you can quickly look up if you’re lost. So as long as you know what street you’re on, you should be fine. It was quite important back then because if you think the traffic in Busan is bad – try London.

White on Blue

Speaking of driving, I actually didn’t realise Korea had an address problem though until recently, because I don’t drive here, and I didn’t really think about it. Back in the UK, it used to be a habit to look for street name signs, but these days we just rely on our satnav screens. When I learned the address system was changing in Korea, I started thinking about those street signs and the fact that the Korean ones – such as they are – are really quite different. In the UK the street names are big white signs with huge black lettering, whereas here you get quite small white lettering on a blue background – it doesn’t help that they have to put both the Korean and English on the signs. I’d say the letters end up being about a quarter of the size in the UK – so they aren’t easy to read from the road. For that matter, I hardly notice them as a pedestrian.

Given that there seems to be this process going on now of creating new numbers and road names in some cases, I could help but wonder if there were going to end up being 10,000 Dokdo Streets. But however they did it, apparently Busan got the best score for their new system.

It’s all a bit low-tech

I don’t think the new system will help me get around better though, because I don’t recall ever looking for a building based on its number. That’s technology again – I just use Naver’s equivalent of Google Street View. For example, when I was looking for Busan eFM for the first time I ‘walked’ in the ‘street view’ until I found it. Even if you don’t hap the street view option, these days you have smartphone maps as well.

The subway system is my map

I feel like I spend most of my life in Busan down in the subway anyway – emerging at the required stop – and 90% of the time I’m almost there. I suppose the subway system works a kind of map as well – everything relates to where the nearest station is. So basically I’m using the subway as my address system – in fact I organise my life around it.

Sometimes I have to make compromises because I’m only using public transport. For example, there’s a big store I want to go to [Costco], but it’s not really near a subway station – so I just have to find an alternative. It would be different if I had a car. But then the subway is so convenient. The first time I travelled around London I was 14 – the city is very large of course – but I got no sense of its size because I’d go underground, take trains, and pop up where I needed to be. It’s the same with Busan – which is ten times bigger than my home city but it doesn’t necessarily feel bigger because of the subway system. There’s no subway where I’m from and it might take an hour to get from one side of the city to the other – about the same length of time it takes you to do the same thing with Busan’s subway. Imagine what a nightmare Busan would be without its subway system.


I read that the subway system in Seoul is losing money, but I think people have to see the bigger picture. In the UK everything is costed out very carefully, but I think it leads to a lot of short-termism, big projects are hardly ever done, and there’s no long-term vision. This is one of the reasons I like Korea – people still believe in big projects here.

What’s the cost-benefit of the Busan subway system? You will never truly know what the economic impact is, but you know it must be there. I suppose the new address system is an example of a big project – there’s lots of short-term inconvenience with long-term benefits we can’t be certain of.

My address is changing but I’m not moving

Certainly, the new address system has created some inconveniences for me. I have a Korean bank but I’m still heavily using two banks in the UK and I’ll have to tell them my Korean address is changing. This is much harder than it seems because they are useless [one of them has a branch in Busan but to change my address I have to notify my British branch in writing and the other already has the wrong Korean address but we’ve established that to change it I need to do so at my local branch in England... in person(!)].

The other problem is that the Korean immigration authorities are incredibly strict about the notifying of new addresses – if you don’t, it can count against moving you from a temporary visa (such as the F-2 I’m on) to permanent residence (F-5, which I’d like to have just so I don’t have to go through the performance that is the F-2 renewal). But then, if I’m staying in the same place, but my address is changing, do I have to notify them and when The problem is with this, in the experience of foreigners here, each immigration office tends to have their own rules and way of doing things [to put it diplomatically].

Last minute nerves

But maybe now I don’t have to worry about the address changes so much – because of course, the government have decided people aren’t ready for the new system, and have delayed it for two years.

I was surprised about this, because it’s been planned for long enough. People are never really ready for big changes, but you pick a date and get through it. For example, in the UK in 1971 we decimalised our currency. More recently, in 1999 many countries switched over to the euro currency, and that was a huge change.

But recently I read about a guy here that tried to order food with his new address and the takeaway said they didn’t understand it, which meant he’d only get his food if he gave the old one. So that’s the problem – people aren’t motivated to adopt a new system until they have to. There comes a point when you have to do it – but with attitudes like the one with the takeaway, I have a feeling that even after the change people will still use the old system unofficially for some time.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-05-25 @ ~19:30

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