[VIEWPINT] Stop Ruining Korea's Historical Relics

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[VIEWPINT] Stop Ruining Korea's Historical Relics

The unimaginable is happening in Afghanistan. The Taleban militia, Islamic fundamentalists, are using tanks and rocket rounds to destroy towering statues of Buddha, the largest of their kind in the world, carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan. The Afghan regime's barbarism against its cultural heritage beggars belief, especially when the rest of the world is fighting a desperate race against time to preserve assets eroded by weathering and air pollution.

The giant stone Buddha statues of Bamiyan are masterpieces of the Buddhist Gandhara art, which flourished during the period of the Kushan Kingdom of India which was a dominant regional power around the second century and developed its power around the plain near the Kabul River in northwest India. Although the ancient works of art are now in Afghan territory, they are the common cultural heritage of mankind.

At the very least, they are historical assets the neighboring Buddhist states have a right to share. The Taleban regime has a duty to manage them temporarily, not the right to destroy them. Disregarding frantic appeals by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsura, the Taleban is carrying out the destruction with the incredible statement, "All we are breaking are stones." The neighboring Buddhist states of Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the European Union and even Iran and Pakistan, both ruled or heavily influenced by Islamic clergy, also issued statements calling for an immediate stop to the destruction.

Seoul also joined officially in the international outcry. But the Korean government is overlooking a similar incident poised to happen right under its nose. The old Korean saying that the darkest place is under the candlestick couldn't apply more aptly. Ulsan city is currently pursuing a plan to develop the areas near Neolithic rock carvings at a riverside cliff called Bangudae and historical stone inscriptions in Ulju-gun. The plans call for a park showcasing prehistoric remains in preparation for Visit Korea Year 2001 and the 2002 World Cup games. While we cannot liken Ulsan city to the Taleban regime, there are similarities in what both are attempting to do. The carvings are the oldest known sculptures in Korea. Although they are now under the administrative care of Ulsan city, they are the common cultural heritage of the entire Korean people.

When I recently published a collection of essays, I used Professor Kim Hong- myong's paintings inspired by the historical treasure as illustrations. The pictures of animals inscribed on the rocks, including a mother whale soaring through the air with a baby whale on her back, represent the quintessential beauty of all forms of life. Ulsan city has the duty to manage the assets for the time being, not the right to harm recklessly the cultural heritage passed down through the centuries to us all. Unheeding the petitions filed by experts from all walks of life and devotees of culture, Ulsan intends to spend 15 billion won ($11.8 million) to build an exhibition hall, a huge parking facility, and a promenade extending through exhibits of prehistoric cultural remains.

It also plans to cut through a ravine to expand the 3.5-meter-wide access road to 8 meters for the convenience of tourists. Once completed, it will become an obscene tourist product that will not be spared the sneers of foreign tourists, especially those from France, which even closed an existing road to better protect ancient rock images when it hosted the 1998 World Cup games.

I doubt whether there is much difference between Afghanistan being trampled under tanks and showered with rocket shells and Ulju-gun, which will be ravaged with dynamite and bulldozers. The Taleban forces are wrecking the statues of Buddha ostensibly because the tenets of Islam forbid the worship of images, but a more convincing interpretation points to an economic strategy aimed at pressuring the United Nations to ease sanctions imposed on the nation. Ulsan city seems to be no different in being blinded by potential economic gains. Just as the Taleban is not destroying the ancient works of art out of ignorance of their cultural value, Ulsan city surely is not unaware of the imperative to preserve these Neolithic antiquities. As it is, the rock cliffs with the sculptured pictures face a precarious future because of repeated submersions and exposure to water after Sayon Dam was built nearby in 1965.

According to the results of a recent study by the Ulsan University Museum, it might be too late to restore the damage even if we were to lose no time in coming up with preservation measures. The city's development plan is incomprehensible when even demolishing the dam to better protect the precious relics would not be too extreme a measure.

As a citizen of Korea who loves Ulsan, I truly hope the city forsakes its blind pursuit of this project with the same oblivious zeal of the 1970s' push for development without regard to the cost to our environment and culture. I hope it conducts a comprehensive academic research project before it is too late and does history a service by implementing meticulous preservation measures.

by Choe Jae-chun

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