Expat Fights to Save Old Korean Homes

By Tony MacGregor and Chung Ah-young
Korea Times, October 12 2005, p16

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A 62-year-old Englishman and his Korean wife are leading a struggle to save Seoul’s last district of traditional homes.

David & Jade Kilburn at home in Gahoe-dong 31-79

English tea merchant David Kilburn and his wife Jade pose in the courtyard of their `hanok,’ or traditional Korean house, in Kahoi-dong, central Seoul. Kilburn has urged city authorities to protect the old houses in the district, which he says are being destroyed by land speculators and poor regulations.
Korea Times Photo By Kim Hyun-tae

David Kilburn and his wife Jade, owners of a traditional "hanok" in the district of Kahoi-dong, say government policies and land speculators have converged to threaten the district that has the feel of Seoul of 100 years ago.

Kilburn, a tea merchant and former journalist, says he isn’t by nature a social activist but was pushed into it as his neighbor rebuilt and expanded his hanok, causing damage to Kilburn’s home and encroaching on his property.

``The more we investigated the situation to save our own home, the more we realized that the whole district is in danger because of government policies and land speculators,’’ he said.

By providing low interest loans for people who want to rebuild their hanok, the government is encouraging the destruction of the traditional houses, he argued. ``The owners of one house were given a government grant of 30 million won and an interest-free long term loan of 20 million won for `hanok repair and redecoration,’’’ Kilburn said. ``They used this money to demolish a fine hanok and erect a modern two-story building which has also been licensed to operate as a wine bar.’’ He said officials at the Chongno ward office authorized these arrangements and claim that no laws were broken by the house owners.

Kim Woo-sung, an official of the Seoul City government, also denied that government policies are threatening the area.

He told The Korea Times that the city’s funds are only available for hanok owners who want to repair their houses, not for those who want to build a house replacing a hanok.

Kim said the city government set up the regulations to preserve hanoks in the district in 2002. These regulations provided funds to hanok owners of 30 million won in grants and 20 million in loans to repair their old homes.

Under the program, about 350 hanoks have been repaired or remodeled with the city government support from August 2001 to this year. As of 2002, the district had 924 hanoks, he said.

Kim said he was unaware of a hanok being damaged by the remodeling of a neighboring house and that in the case of a house being licensed to operate a wine bar or other business, it would have to report to him. He said basically the city government policy is to protect the district as residential area and not develop it into a commercial area.

But Kilburn said the ancient neighborhood is changing so quickly that the traditional nature of the area could disappear within a year.

He said it is ironic that after South Korea lost so much of its cultural history through the deliberate efforts of Japanese colonizers and the effects of the Korean War (1950-1953), that the few remnants of its past are being destroyed because of speculative greed and local government policies.

``If Koreans don’t want to preserve the neighborhood, then we have to accept that, but a question like this shouldn’t be decided by the local district office. This area is an important piece of Korea’s past and more people should be involved than local bureaucrats,’’ he said.

Hanok are traditional single-story Korean homes consisting of a frame of interlocking wooden beams resting on blocks of stone with walls of straw, mulberry paper and clay. According to Kilburn, though, these houses are being bulldozed and replaced by two-story concrete buildings topped with traditional-looking tiled roofs.

"The replacements are not genuine hanoks, which have an ambiance that can’t be replicated with modern building techniques and materials,’’ he said.

Kilburn’s attempts to find out what laws are in place to protect the district’s hanok have been a nightmare. ``The law seems to be that anything we (local government officials) approve is legal and we decide everything case by case. The laws are not published,’’ he said.

Kilburn has met with local officials with frustrating results and sent a letter to Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak explaining the danger to the historical district. He has yet to receive a reply.

Kim of Seoul city government said the city is aware of the importance of the district and this is why it was designated as a historical, cultural site. He explained that when a new house is to be built, the city government may recommend that it be built not higher than four stories, which is legal in construction law, to protect the atmosphere of the district. But it is just a recommendation, not a law, Kim said.

He said that in the 1980s and early 1990s, the city government had a strict protective policy toward the district’s hanok. But in the 1990s due to a housing shortage there were calls for redevelopment from some residents of the district so the city changed the original policy to a more lenient one, giving residents more leeway with their properties.

However, Kilburn believed a combination of government financing and unclear building regulations have allowed speculators to purchase single-story hanok at low prices and resell them at higher prices or erect two-story buildings in place of the original houses. "After 600 years at the heart of Korean cultural and social life, Seoul’s Kahoi-dong, `the place where beauty gathers,’ is being destroyed," he said.

For more information about Kilburn’s campaign to save the traditional houses, visit his Web site at www.kahoidong.com.

10-11-2005 18:41

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