Saving History: South Korea’s Preservation Dilemma

BY Larisa Epatko  January 21, 2011 at 10:30 AM EST

SEOUL, South Korea | Near Gwanghwamun Plaza, where statues of King Sejong and Adm. Yi Sun-sin regally stand, is a colorful pagoda under renovation, fenced-off in a corner and surrounded by high-rise office buildings.

It’s not unusual to see ancient palaces, Buddhist temples and Confucian shrines around town. But traditional Korean homes, known as hanok, are disappearing in cities’ redevelopment, says Peter Bartholomew, managing director of Industrial Research and Consulting Ltd. in Seoul and an advocate for Korean preservation efforts for three decades.

Bartholomew, who is also president of the Royal Asiatic Society and a board member of the National Trust in Korea, said the number of traditional Korean homes has shrunk from 800,000 about 30 years ago to 7,000 today.

Many Koreans feel they are dilapidated and obsolete structures that are beyond repair and not worth upgrading to current comfort standards, he said. Without a public outcry demanding their preservation, city governments are replacing them with larger apartment structures in the revitalization that is accompanying South Korea’s economic growth.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard [in his preservation efforts], “Are you against development and progress?,” Bartholomew said.

Han Yong Hee, 33, a delivery person who lives in Seoul, says he would like more emphasis placed on preservation, but people are busy with their daily lives and earning money, not thinking about saving old structures.

“Here in Korea, when people say we are abundant, they talk about having nice food and getting a new car as opposed to other nations, where people think that abundance means enjoying cultural life,” Han said through a translator.

“When you go to old European cities, they still have all the buildings constructed centuries ago,” he said. “Likewise, I want all the traditional buildings to remain intact in Seoul.”

The Bukchon district in Seoul has become famous for its traditional courtyard homes with their tiled roofs and stucco or brick exteriors. They’ve survived because the city government has designated the area a hanok preservation district.

Once people saw how popular the old homes there have become, prices skyrocketed, said Bartholomew. There’s cultural value but also monetary since the restored homes can be rented at a higher price, he said.

Attitudes are beginning to change, but it’s almost too late with many remaining homes destined for demolition, he added.

As for the cultural aspect, Je Gal Ryoung, a 40-year-old housewife from Seoul, said she would like the government to preserve the old structures for her two daughters who are now too young to appreciate them.

“It’s part of our culture which is quite unique to Korean society,” she said.

Photo of Je Gal Ryoung and her daughters. View more photos and reports from the NewsHour’s trip to South Korea and follow us on Twitter.