Protecting endangered cultural assets

As times change — and how rapidly they do in our automated, digitizing, mobile-mad era — more and more cultural items and activities are in danger of being lost or forgotten. In Korea, social, political, and economic changes have been so sweeping during the last century that some of the country's traditional crafts have already passed out of existence and many precious tangible items have been destroyed or taken abroad.

Fortunately, many others have been saved from extinction, thanks to the national government's system for identifying, classifying, protecting, and promoting important cultural assets. Not many countries in the world can boast such a thoroughgoing and wide-ranging system of caring for cultural assets.

Korea first set up the basic elements of the system in 1955, but the Law for the Protection of Cultural Assets was not promulgated until 1962.

Cultural assets are officially divided into four main categories, each with appropriate subcategories.

The first, and biggest, category is that of Tangible Cultural Assets. It comprises such properties as architectural structures, achaeological artifacts, dynastic records and other documents. There are three subdivisions of Tangible Assets, but the difference between the first two (National Treasures and, simply, Treasures) is really a matter of degree rather than kind. Sungnyemun (숭례문 崇禮門), commonly called Namdaemun (남대문 南大門), the Great South Gate of the old city wall of Seoul, for instance, is designated National Treasure No. 1. Other famous examples of National Treasures include the Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 石窟庵) in Gyeongju (경주 慶州) , which is National Treasure No. 24, and the five-story wooden pagoda (National Treasure No. 55) at Beopju Temple (법주사 法住寺) on Mt. Songni (속리산 俗離山). The numbers are not ratings of artistic or cultural value but simply indicate the chronological order in which official status was granted.


Sungnyemun, commonly referred to as Namdaemun (South Gate), was the first cultural asset to be officially designated a National Treasure.

All extant buildings dating from the Goryeo (고려 高麗) Dynasty are in this group because of their scarcity and venerable age, while more impressive wooden structures from the mid to late Joseon (조선 朝鮮) Dynasty, such as the vast Sebyeonggwan (세병관 洗兵館, Treasure No. 293) in Tongyong (통영 統營), are designated as just Treasures because they are from a much later period or are not unique examples of their kind.

The entrance to Sebyeonggwan

The entrance to Sebyeonggwan



The third division of Tangible Cultural Assets is that of Historical Landmarks and Relics. This is a broad group that embraces prehistoric remains found in archaeological diggings, city walls and beacon towers, sites of important battles or political events, places and objects important in the history of industry or education or transport, commemorative monuments, and many other places of historical interest.

All told, the Tangible Assets include about 250 National Treasures, more than 970 Treasures, and over 320 Historical Landmarks and Relics.

The second main category is that of Famous Sights and Natural Monuments. As of this writing, only seven spots around the country are officially designated as Famous Sights, and they are all breathtakingly beautiful places that look like the scenes in traditional Oriental watercolors of mountains and streams. Famous Sight No. 1, for example, is Sogeumgang (소금강 小金剛) in Cheonghak-dong, Myeongju-gun, Gangwon Province (강원도 명주군 청학동 江原道 溟州郡 靑鶴洞), a sort of "miniature" version of the Diamond Mountain area.

A valley in the Sogeumgang area

A valley in the Sogeumgang area

Natural Monuments include such places as the staging grounds for protected species of birds. And did you know that an animal can also be a Natural Monument? A variety of dog unique to Korea, the Jindo Dog (진돗개) of the island of Jindo (진도 珍島), has been designated an official Natural Monument. There are about 270 Natural Monuments in all.

A Jindo dog

A typical Jindo Dog. This breed of dog is unique to Korea and has been officially designated a Natural Monument.

Another big main category is that of Intangible Cultural Assets. This group embraces traditional performing arts, including masked dance drama, folksy puppet plays, folk music and dance, as well as 22 different kinds of crafts.

It's in relation to this category that the term Human Cultural Assets is used. It refers to those persons who have been officially judged as being the best practitioners of some particular Intangible Cultural Asset. They are granted government stipends to help them continue their work, and talented youngsters are selected for scholarships to study under them in order to ensure that the traditional arts are properly passed on to posterity.

Ven. Manbong working on a taenghwa

The late Ven. Manbong at work on a taenghwa (thangka). He was officially designated a Human Cultural Asset for Buddhist art.

The last main category is Folkloric Materials, which comprise about 220 items related to customs and everyday life. They include certain traditional dwellings, well-preserved items of clothing from earlier times, and symbols of folk religion.

The process of official designation is a long a complicated one. Once an item is proposed to the Committee for Cultural Assets as a candidate, it must be researched by specialists, who prepare photographs, diagrams, and reports giving full details of the candidate's description and history. This documentation must provide well-founded justifications for the granting of cultural-asset status. The committee then submits these materials to the Office of the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism for further review. A special ministry committee must give its unanimous approval before the status of Cultural Asset is granted. Once an item has been officially designated, its owners or administrators are notified and it can no longer be given away, moved, sold, repaired, or modified in any way without ministry approval. Open access to the item is allowed for display purposes and for academic research.

Although there have been complaints about the system, saying that regionalism and politics have entered into the granting of official status and that the system stifles creativity, no one would want to dispense with it, for in a changing society like that of Korea, such a system seems to be not only a benefit but also a must.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 26 March 2000.