The fading remnants of South Korea's traditional buildings
Recent cases of arson highlight the issue of protection of South Korea's historic buildings – and the level of disconnect some see between many Koreans and their cultural heritage.
Seoul, South Korea
A symbolic gate at an ancient Buddhist temple in South Korea burned to the ground in December, robbing a country with a richly textured past of yet another slice of its cultural history. It was the latest blow to an already small number of historical buildings that culturalists say have been brutally ravaged throughout the past century by a combination of colonization, war, and rapid economic development.Skip to next paragraph
The incident involving the destruction of a site more than 1,300 years old, comes after a series of arson attacks on traditional buildings in recent years. Those include Seoul’s iconic 600-year-old Namdaemun Gate, Seoul's Changgyeong Palace, a World Heritage site, and an 18th-century command post at the city of Suwon’s Hwasong Fortress. At the time of the incidents critics lambasted the lack of protection for the country’s historical structures against vandalism, some calling for stricter laws.
But it's not just crimes of arson, often carried out by angry individuals seeking to lash out at the government, that are threatening South Korea's cultural heritage. City governments have tended to replace traditional buildings with larger, more modern structures in a revitalization effort to keep pace with South Korea's rapid economic growth. The most visible example has been the plight of traditional wooden homes known in Korean as hanok – razed to make way for skyskraping apartment buildings.
For preservationists, such incidents strip the country of its uniquely Korean face. Some argue many Koreans have lost touch with their own traditions and culture in the face of the tumultuous 20th century on the Korean Peninsula.
Like the Chinese, some preservationists say, Koreans are coming to prefer shiny new buildings, which they perceive as offering a greater sense of comfort and convenience.
In 2009, the hanok neighborhood of Ikseon-dong in Seoul was the center of preservation efforts by city officials. But the moves to protect the buildings came up against an unlikely foe: the owners themselves. Some told local press they would prefer the hanok were razed and replaced with apartment buildings as long as they were provided with one of the new residences.
Park Kwang-hee of the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea says the disappearance of hanok and what for some appears to be a growing indifference to cultural preservation within the country could just be linked to their perceived incompatibility with modern life. “Hanok are made of wood and there are great limits on the size or frame,” he explains. “Also, the materials to build hanok are not easy to find.”
Destruction in times of foreign occupation and war
Historians note Korea lost almost all of its indigenous buildings in three rough waves during the 20th century – up to 90 percent of its nonreligious architecture by some estimates.
First, the Japanese colonial occupation from 1910 to 1945 saw widespread cultural destruction. Perhaps the most significant of them was Gyeongbokgung, the centerpiece palace of the Joseon Dynasty that ruled Korea until Japan invaded and toppled the royal family. Most of the palace complex was destroyed and made way for the headquarters of the Japanese Governor-General, though efforts have been ongoing for more than 20 years to restore the site.
The fratricidal Korean War of 1950 to 1953 then wrought massive destruction, particularly on Seoul. Andrew Salmon, a historian, says most residences in Seoul were hanok at the close of the fighting, with the exception of those built during the 35 years of Japanese colonial rule.
“Due to the street fighting – particularly when US Marines captured it from North Korean forces in September 1951," he explains, "entire swaths of the city were obliterated, though some lucky districts were untouched."