The Value of Heritage:

The Problem in South Korea

by David Kilburn

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Our Heritage is a legacy from our past. It is something we live with today and, hopefully, something that we can pass on to future generations. In every country, cultural heritage is both a record of life and history and also an irreplaceable source of creativity and inspiration. Our cultural heritage, like our DNA, determines who we are, giving us both identity and the values that will guide our lives in a changing world.

Yet despite its importance, there is never any guarantee that heritage will survive and be passed on to the next generation. This has been true throughout history and it is even truer today. For this reason, and in recent years, an increasing number of countries have launched initiatives designed to protect and preserve their own cultural heritages. These initiatives are designed not only to protect famous monuments, buildings, and the natural landscape, but also the fine arts and crafts, and the more ordinary buildings and objects that reflect the history and ways of life in each country.

There is a growing recognition in Asia, both by governments and individuals that heritage should be preserved and protected. For example, In February 2006, China’s State Council designated the second Saturday in June as national Cultural Heritage Day and a national holiday, in a bid to promote public awareness of the nation's cultural heritage protection efforts.

China, like other countries, faces a common set of problems that can erode or destroy heritage. Industrialisation and economic growth go hand in hand with dramatic population growth and social change. These alter life styles and create new pressures on land use and resources. Climate change and pollution can also destroy landscapes, buildings, and treasures from the past. Wars, conflict, unrest can all add to the destruction.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is simply human neglect, the failure to act when the heritage from the past is in danger. Regulations alone cannot preserve culture. People need to recognize, value, and retain their heritage for it to survive.

Witness the story of ancient Rome (Lançon 2001). In 425 AD, When the city of Rome was already over 1,000 years old, the Emperor Majorian was so concerned about the demolition of historic buildings that he decreed that any public official who authorised such work should be fined 50lb kg of gold while those of lesser ranks who were involved should be flogged or have hands amputated! Despite the decree, over the centuries that followed, most of the ancient city was steadily destroyed. The real destruction was wrought not by invading barbarians, but by the Romans themselves who gradually demolished old buildings to re-use the marble blocks, and fired classical sculptures to make lime for builders and whitewash for painters. By the time people learned to appreciate the heritage of Ancient Rome, over 90% of it was gone: Rome had become a city of tantalizing ruins. 

In Europe alone now there are over 200 organisations working at a national level to preserve Europe's rich cultural heritage - both governmental and NGO. In addition many more organisations work to protect the heritage of individual cities, towns, and villages.

The Modern Approach to Heritage Preservation

Many of the roots of today's approach to heritage preservation can be found in the UK where The National Trust ( was founded in 1895 by three Victorian philanthropists (Gaze 1988).

Concerned about the impact of uncontrolled development and industrialisation, the three set up the Trust to act as a guardian for the nation of threatened countryside and buildings.

Today, the National Trust cares for over 617,763 acres of countryside, more than 709 miles of coastline, and more than 300 historic houses and gardens, ancient monuments, nature reserves and parks (The National Trust 2008).

The National Trust is the UK’s largest, private land-owner and also Europe’s largest conservation organisation.

The Trust is a registered charity, completely independent of Government, completely independent of big business. It relies on the generosity of 3.56 million subscribing members, other supporters who make donations, and its own commercial activities. In 2007/8, The National Trust had an income of £389 million and employed 4,526 people. A further 52,000 provided their services on a voluntary basis and without pay. Also, that year, there were 15 million visits to National Trust pay-for-entry properties (The National Trust 2008).

The success of the National Trust is in its ability to mobilize the popular support of ordinary people who can see and experience the value the Trust returns to society. The success of the National Trust has provided a model for National Trust organisations with similar goals in many other countries.

Complementing the work of the National Trust, is English Heritage (, a government agency for the historic environment established in 1983

English Heritage is funded partly by the Government and partly from revenue earned its historic properties and other services. In 2007/8 public funding was worth £129m; other sources £49m (English Heritage 2008).

English Heritage works in partnership with the central government departments, local authorities, voluntary bodies and the private sector to: conserve and enhance the historic environment; broaden public access to the heritage; and increase people’s understanding of the past.

The UK Government also has the power to declare any building to be of “special architectural or historic interest.” Details are recorded on a special list, and the buildings are inspected at regular intervals.

Building owners who wish to demolish, alter, or extend a listed building in any way that affects its character, must have a special “listed building consent” to do so. The government gives grants to help maintain listed buildings and enforces severe penalties for making unauthorised changes of any kind, or neglecting to maintain a listed building. These can include the compulsory purchase of the building in extreme cases.

Listed buildings include nearly all those built before 1840, a large number built between 1840 and 1914, and those built between 1914 and 1939 considered of high quality or historic interest.

Over the past 30 years or so in the UK, the legal and administrative apparatus to support and enforce preservation has become steadily more sophisticated and powerful. The number of listed buildings has grown from one in 140 to one in 40. Over 1.5 million buildings are now under the protection of heritage laws and regulations, and the number grows every year (English Heritage provides some statistics at ).

International Standards

The Industrial Revolution that began slowly in the UK in the eighteenth century and totally transformed society in the nineteenth soon spread from the UK to other countries that, in turn, began to face problems in preserving their own heritages. All faced similar experiences of what to do, and why.

Eventually, these experiences led to the publication of the Venice Charter ( in 1964 following a conference in Venice where representatives of several nations pooled their experience to write a declaration of how to approach the issue of heritage protection and preservation. Most significantly, the Venice Charter established that heritage includes much more than famous buildings and works of art:

ARTICLE 1. The concept of an historic monument embraces not only the single architectural work but also the urban or rural setting in which is found the evidence of a particular civilization, a significant development or an historic event. This applies not only to great works of art but also to more modest works of the past which have acquired cultural significance with the passing of time.

Successive international agreements within the framework of UNESCO and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites, have built on the foundations laid by the Venice Charter. These provide not only a moral and philosophical background to the need for conservation but also the means to obtain practical advice, international support, and funding.

The Korean Problem

South Korea is economically and technologically an advanced country and also a member of the main international organisations concerned with culture and preservation of the historical heritage, such as UNESCO and ICOMOS.

However South Korea's track record in preserving its own heritage has achieved only mixed results as large amounts of heritage are destroyed every year. For example, although the Changdeokgung Palace has been lovingly restored, the neighbouring Bukchon area is being relentlessly developed as buildings from the last century are demolished even though the area is described as a historic district with preservation status. Within Kahoi-Dong (Gahoe-dong), about half the original hanoks have been totally demolished since 2001 and the destruction continues. Regrettably, public money earmarked for preservation and protection has been used to fund totally new buildings where not one single beam or stone from the original remains. The majority of the new buildings are based on reinforced concrete and steel more than the natural materials that give hanoks their special character (see for details and documents).

In other countries also, there are occasions when preservation projects go terribly wrong. According to UNESCO and the Council of Europe, successful Heritage Protection needs action on two fronts:

The first concerns land use planning and development at the national, regional and local levels. Such programme must have the force of law, establishing basic regulations to protect cultural and natural heritage. There must also be a strong commitment to enforce this protection.

The second front is philosophical and resides in the very content of urban policies. An effective urban policy must be based on actions that contribute to the key reasons why towns and cities exist - as centres of civilised life, as places for exchanges and encounters, and as places where culture and heritage accumulate.

A political vision is necessary to achieve this. A city’s cultural heritage is embedded in its neighbourhoods and historic centres. Intelligent planning that recognizes this offers an opportunity to help cities thrive and continue to contribute to the progress of human civilisation.

This political vision is lacking in Korea, perhaps as a result of the misfortunes of the last century. During the Japanese occupation, a determined attempt was made to undermine and destroy Korean culture. The Korean War caused immense physical destruction and shattered the fabric of society. The military governments that followed suppressed personal freedoms, prioritized rapid economic growth, and stigmatized what remained from the past as "old fashioned" and "no longer needed."

While Koreans speak proudly, and justifiably, of the value of their cultural heritage at the same time it seems they also sidestep the traumas of the last century. The culture they describe is an idealized one, a fiction that might have existed if only the 20th century had taken a different course.

Consequently, the very real problems of the present are ignored. Heritage Preservation in Korea is severely handicapped by: 1. Vague Regulations, 2. Lack of will to enforce protection, 3. Lack of Political Vision, and 4. Lack of understanding of the importance of heritage.

The contrasts between Korea and other countries in terms of heritage protection are astonishing. Consider the comparison with Warsaw, for example.

At the end of the Second World War in Europe in 1945, over 90% of all the buildings in Warsaw, Poland's capital for almost 1,000 years had been utterly destroyed. As peace arrived, the Poles faced the question of what to do about their capital city. Rather than build a completely modern city from scratch, the Poles chose to rebuild their ancient city to look almost exactly as it had been before the war. Since all the original records had been destroyed alongside the buildings, the Poles searched the museums, libraries, and collections of the world for pictures, drawings, photographs, and diagrams to help achieve this. Visitors today are impressed with the beauty of the old city, as they had been centuries before, though many perhaps do not realize the immense task it took to bring it into being again (Diefendorf 1990).

Seoul also was heavily damaged during the Korean War. Yet in the years that have followed, successive metropolitan governments have not been content just to build a new city in South Seoul, they have also, directly and indirectly, encouraged the demolition and destruction of virtually all the older buildings of North Seoul. Even the Japanese occupation forces were less successful at this!

Economic Values

Heritage buildings are often destroyed in urban areas based on the argument that the land needs to be put to more productive economic uses or must serve more important social needs. Yet these arguments typically ignore the simple fact that heritage is an economic asset that, properly managed, can deliver continuing streams of revenue. Part of the attraction for the millions of tourists that flock to London, Paris, Venice, and other European cities each year lies in the exploration of historic buildings, districts, and all the many other factors that are part of each city's cultural heritage. Cultural tourism provides employment, revitalizes old districts, and generates new opportunities in trade and the service industries.

Within Asia, Singapore illustrates this most clearly. At the end of World War II, Singapore was an underdeveloped city whose commercial vitality was no more. It was an impoverished city of slums and squatters, where even clean drinking water was hard to find. Today, it is a highly developed modern city, with a high standard of living for all, and a prosperous economy.

However, on the way from 1945 till today, something important almost got lost. As the modern city developed, nearly all the old city was demolished. The buildings were in disrepair, and considered eyesores. This program of redevelopment continued without any review till the mid 1980's.

By the early 1980's tourism had become the third most productive sector of Singapore's economy and contributed 5% to GNP. But by 1986, hotel occupancy was falling and analysis showed that tourism's rate of growth had been declining for several years. With typical thoroughness, the Singapore government researched the views of visitors about their experience of Singapore.

They found that about 70% of tourists came from Asia to see Singapore's economic miracle for themselves, and were not disappointed.

However the 30% of tourists who came from outside Asia were hoping to experience something of the island's romantic historical image. These people were disappointed. Why travel half way round the world to see a modern city just like those back at home? Since visitors from outside Asia had been the growth sector for tourism, word of their disappointment was discouraging their friends, colleagues, and families from visiting the island.

In an official report, the Singapore Government's Tourism Task Force concluded, "in our efforts to build up a modern metropolis, we have removed aspects of our Oriental mystique and charm best symbolized in old buildings."

Teams of bureaucrats were soon organised to study how other countries preserved and managed their historical legacy, especially their old buildings. Demolitions were stopped. Money was poured into the repair and preservation of what little remained. Great care was taken to ensure the historical authenticity of old buildings was retained (quite unlike Korea). Within about six years, Old China Town, Little India, and much else had been rehabilitated. By 1993, revenues from Tourism had grown to 10.3% of Singapore's GNP.

In April 2006, Hu Jintao, China's president took the opportunity of a speech at Yale University to talk about why China was now placing great emphasis on the protection and preservation of its own cultural legacy:

" The world is a treasure house where the unique cultural achievement created by people of all countries are displayed. The culture of a nation tells a lot about the evolution of the nation’s understanding of the world and life, both past and present."
Culture thus embodies a nation’s fundamental pursuit of mind and dictates its norms of behavior. The historical process of human development is one in which different civilizations interact with and enrich each other and all civilizations in human history have contributed to human progress in their own unique way."
" Cultural diversity is a basic feature of both human society and today’s world and an important driving force for human progress. As history has shown, in the course of interactions between civilizations, we not only need to remove natural barriers and overcome physical isolation, we also need to remove obstacle and obstruction of the mind and overcome various prejudices and misunderstanding."

The challenge, the opportunity, and the risks today are all more extreme than when the UK underwent the world’s first industrial revolution.

Modern construction techniques can transform whole districts more quickly than ever before. In comparison, Britain’s industrial revolution was a protracted, leisurely affair.

Moreover, globalisation brings hazards that did not exist for the pioneering industrial economies of Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The British, the French, the Germans all put their indelible national stamp on the implementation of new technologies and processes. Today, one consequence of globalisation is that the new cities that spring up in Asia become increasingly similar to one another. The individual cultural differences that grew out of landscape, language, religion, climate, and helped define each city and its people are replaced by standardized concrete matrix that reflects the technologies of construction rather than the culture of the inhabitants. In this new urban landscape, people must mould their own identities into cities devoid of heritage. This loss of cultural diversity to a homogenous global norm is a new danger.

South Korea is alone among OECD nations in the disrespect it shows to its own historical legacy and its failure to abide by the terms of the Venice Charter, as an examination of events in Gahoe-Dong shows all too clearly. If China, though still an underdeveloped country, and Singapore both find the same social, spiritual, and economic values in the preservation of their own heritages as other countries, surely there can be comparable benefits for Korea. But time is running out, as it almost did in Singapore. Soon almost nothing will remain of the historical legacy of Seoul's old buildings but the press releases that promised preservation and protection for a uniquely Korean view of how a people, their culture, and a landscape could co-exist in a creative harmony.

David Kilburn

Seoul, July 16th 2006 and Tokyo, April 4th 2009 

Works Cited

Diefendorf, Jeffry M. Rebuilding Europe's Bombed Cities. Macmillan, 1990.

English Heritage. Annual Report 2007/8. Annual Report, English Heritage, English Heritage, 2008.

Gaze, John. Figures in a landscape: a history of the National Trust. Barrie & Jenkins in association with the National Trust, 1988.

Lançon, Bertrand. Rome in Late Antiquity: Ad 313-604. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Taylor & Francis, 2001.

The National Trust. The National Trust: Annual Report 2007/08. Annual Report, The National Trust, The National Trust, 2008. 


This essay is developed from a presentation made to members of the Seoul Metropolitan Government and their advisors 
in July 2006. 

David Kilburn is the founder of, a heritage protection organisation in Seoul

Index Page ~ Click here
How an entire district in Kahoi-Dong disappeared ~ Click here
How pervasive corruption undermines enlightened policies in Korea ~ Click here
The Venice Charter
The Nara Declaration

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