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[OUTLOOK]Race is on for Gaeseong’s treasure

July 17,2003
The North Korean city of Gaeseong has lately blossomed as a symbol of North-South cooperation. Even as Pyeong-yang was beating the war drums in its “chicken” game with the Bush administration, officials from South Korea last month were “commuting” by bus through the Demilitarized Zone for talks with Northern counterparts in Gaeseong. And Hyundai Asan broke ground for a vast industrial zone in Gaeseong that is to be a key link in reunified Korea’s dream of becoming the “hub of Northeast Asia.”
For Tony Michell, all the activity in Gaeseong means only one thing ― the race is on.
Mr. Michell, a British business consultant who has lived in Korea for 25 years, has a dream of his own ― to preserve and restore the heritage of Gaeseong, the ancient capital of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). He has created a joint venture with the Gaeseong People’s Committee ― the municipal government ― to preserve historic buildings and sites in and around the walled city.
Now all he needs is a lot of money to do archeological surveys, train restoration craftsmen and relocate people who are living in traditional-style houses. He hopes to get some of it by nonprofit development of Gaeseong’s tourist potential.
“North Koreans don’t understand ‘not for profit,’ ” Mr. Michell says. “To them everything is either free or it’s for profit.” He explained that the surplus from the tourist operation, what looks like “profit” to them, will be poured into the restoration work instead of being retained for private use.
A tourist industry in the North Korean Hermit King-dom? Shall we laugh or cry?
It will take a while, Mr. Michell acknowledges, but he’s thinking 100,000 visitors a day in peak season. Potentially, there is plenty to see in Gae-seong. At its peak a millennium ago, the city was one of the largest in the medieval world, with a population of 600,000 to 800,000. It was an international trading city at the end (or the beginning) of the silk road that crossed the Central Asian steppes to Europe. The Goryeo Dynasty’s achievements ― celadon, moveable metal type, silk, weapons ― were developed in Gaeseong. It was a center of Buddhism.
The area’s existing tourist sites include King Gongmin’s tomb, palace ruins, the Bagyeon waterfall, the fortress gates on Mount Taeheung, a village with many traditional houses and the Seonggyungwan College, now a museum.
Mr. Michell and the people’s committee have agreed that automobile traffic must be banned from the city center. “They should go by ox cart,” the North Koreans decided.
“But even ox carts cost money,” Mr. Michell notes. He is seeking $3 million, just to get started. “But North Korea is on such a blacklist that it is hard to raise money.”
Of course, there is a reason for the blacklist. A year or two ago, Pyeongyang was making progress developing relations with European countries and luring investment. But since its clandestine nuclear program became known, all cooperation has stopped. “It is not possible to have normal relations until this problem is resolved,” a European diplomat explains.
Mr. Michell has asked the National Trust of Korea for 100,000 euros ($113,000) to restore and operate 10 traditional houses in Gaeseong, and he is seeking to have the city designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, which would bring in money and expertise.
But that is a four-year process, and meanwhile development is coming to Gaeseong.
“Hyundai,” Mr. Michell asserts, “has no interest in preservation.” Hyundai is the contractor under a government-to-government agreement be-tween the two Koreas to develop 16,337 acres of land around Gaeseong. About 40 percent will be used for building factories and the rest for adjacent residential districts. In the first phase, the South’s Korea Land Corporation plans to build by 2007 an 816-acre complex to house 300 textile factories and shoe, leather and cloth manufacturers.
The development project is outside the city wall, so it does not threaten the historic city. But the real treasure, Mr. Michell says, is buried. About 1,800 hanok, traditional houses, still stand. But 100,000 more Goryeo structures are under the ground. Mr. Michell wants to have them excavated, and also the Heungwangsa temple, which he describes as the most spectacular of the Goryeo period. It lies within the industrial zone. Mr. Michell’s plans are further spelled out on the Web site www.ventureheritage.com.
“The race between conservationists and developers has started,” he says. He has seen it before. “When I came to Seoul in 1978, there were tile rooftops as far as you could see. Now they are gone. Same thing in Gyeongju, in Gongju, in Puyeo.” He does not want to let that happen to one of Korea’s last jewels. “For 50 years, Gaeseong has been asleep,” Mr. Michell says. “Now all that was asleep is waking up.”

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.


by Hal Piper


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