Unesco Adds Several More Korean Shrines to World Heritage List

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Unesco Adds Several More Korean Shrines to World Heritage List

While they may not be as opulent and awe-inspiring as France's Versailles Palace or India's Taj Mahal, Korea's Kyongju historic area and ancient burial structures in the provincial cities of Gochang, Hwasun and Gangwha now join those grand structures on Unesco's World Heritage List - a list that now includes 690 sites of "outstanding universal value."

The Kyongju historic area and the three other sites were proclaimed World Cultural Heritage sites on Saturday, the last day of the World Heritage Council annual meeting in Cairns, Australia. The latest listings bring the number of World Cultural Heritage sites in Korea to seven. The Sokkuram Buddhist Grotto, Haeinsa Temple's Changgyong Pango (the depository for the Tripitaka Koreana, a set of carved wooden blocks from which Buddhist texts were printed) and the Chongmyo Shrine made the list in 1995. Changteok Palace Complex and Hwaseong Fortress were added in 1997.

The Kyongju historic area, covering 2,880 hectares, contains a remarkable concentration of Korean Buddhist art and the remains of temples and palaces from the 7th to 10th centuries. The area, clustered around Namsan (South Mountain) Belt, has a treasure trove of Buddhist remains; the Wolsong Belt contains ancient palace sites, and the Tumuli Park Belt features burial mounds of kings and noblemen.

The Namsan area contains a high concentration of Buddhist artifacts. The mountain area was one of five sacred mountains during the early Shilla Period. With the spread of Buddhism, Namsan became the earthly representation of Sumeru - the heavenly mountain of Buddha Land. Its gorges and ridges abound with granite pagodas, stoneware pots, royal burial mounds and palaces, and stone sculptures and rock-cut reliefs of Buddha.

Hundreds of dolmens, prehistoric structures consisting of two upright stones and a capstone, some dating from 1000 B.C., are found at sites in Gochang, North Cholla Province, Hwasun, South Cholla Province and Ganghwa, Inchon. The Megalithic tombs are built of large stone slabs. Similar tombs are found in many parts of the world, but nowhere else is there such a concentration.

The dolmens, offer valuable clues about those who erected them, and about the inhabitants' social and political systems, beliefs and religious rituals, arts and festivals.

Being selected as a World Cultural Heritage site recognizes a site's value in the context of world history. "It is an international recognition of the uniqueness of Korean culture," explained assistant director of the Cultural Properties Administration Planning Division, Kang Kyung-hwan.

Being chosen as a World Cultural Heritage site can also boost tourism. "China, for example, has about 20 sites," said Huh Kwon, director of the Korean National Commission for Unesco Culture and Communication Department. "Income from tourism has grown significantly since they were selected."

The newly accorded status of the sites also provides added incentive to institute more thorough conservation and preservation measures to protect and maintain the structures.

"Being listed as a World Cultural Heritage site involves submitting reports to the World Heritage Council, so local governments will be pressured to take more systematic conservation measures," said Mr. Kang, with the planning commission. Reports must be filed every six years.

Extra financial and technical assistance will be made available to help conserve the sites. "While each country is responsible for the conservation of its own sites, there is an emergency fund that can be tapped if a site is determined to be in danger," said Mr. Huh.

Technical assistance is also very important to help educate conservation experts and to develop conservation strategies which Korea sorely needs.

With 690 cultural and natural sites on the World Heritage List, the council decided at its Cairns meeting to introduce an annual limit of 30 new sites, starting in 2003. "This means it will be difficult for Korea to have more sites listed," said Mr. Huh. He said it also meant that Andong Hwahoe Village, which is on a tentative list, would not be designated as a World Cultural Heritage site until at least 2004.

North Korea, which joined the World Heritage Convention in 1998, is expected to apply next year to have some sites listed. "We can expect to see some North Korean sites, most likely tombs from the Koguryo Period, being designated as World Cultural Heritage site in 2003," said Mr. Huh.

He emphasized the need for local residents to participate in conservation efforts and said future policies needed to address cultural considerations.

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