Dusty treasuresAt Gyeongbok Palace on a recent Saturday, as a considerable number of tourists strolled the grounds to get a glimpse of Korean history, a century-old artifact was being plastered with cement by workers who, it seems safe to assume, didn’t have degrees in historical restoration.
At the Geunjeongjeon, the main building of the palace, another unpleasant surprise awaited tourists. At this most historic of sites, where kings once tended to state affairs, the floor was covered with a thick layer of dust, and numerous holes had been punched in the mulberry paper on the traditional windows.
One thing Koreans like to say they take pride in is their 5,000-year history. But Robert Neff, a local amateur historian, has his doubts. “If you’re so proud of it,” he says, “why don’t you sell it to us?”
Since he came to Korea as U.S. soldier in the early 1980s, Neff has been researching Korean history, specializing in the 19th-century late Joseon Dynasty period. He’s become enough of an authority that he’s been used as a consultant to help identify old photographs.
In the course of his work, he’s made the rounds of Korean historic sites, and has been frequently disappointed by what he calls the government’s failure to bring them to life for visitors. “What they do with history has nothing to do with history,” Neff says of Korea’s various tourism bodies.
“Of course, the tourist attractions are not perfect, and we’re making efforts to figure out problems and fix them,” says Zhu Sang-yong, a public relations manager at the Korea National Tourism Organization.
According to the organization, the tourism industry generated $18 billion in 2002, accounting for about 4 percent of gross domestic product. Keum Gi-hyung, first secretary of the tourism policy division at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, says that figure is one-third of the worldwide average ― an unimpressive showing, it could be said, for a country with 5,000 years of history.
Michael Breen, a British expatriate and longtime resident who’s written books about Korea, thinks its history is an asset that’s being wasted. “Korea has a very fascinating history, but the thing is, it’s not told in an interesting way to tourists,” Breen says.
Neff couldn’t agree more. He points to the English-language signs in the palaces in downtown Seoul, which he says read like a doctor’s prescription. “There’re so many fun anecdotes, like [about] one of the palaces [being] haunted, so that Queen Min changed her quarters,” Neff says. “But the signboards do not make [for] interesting trips at all.”
They can certainly make for dense reading. On one English-language sign at Gyeongbok Palace, more than half of the text consists of numerals and Korean words like “Gangnyeonjeon” and “Geunjeongjeon.” The surfaces of some of the signs have been obliterated by the weather.
Another example of slipshod signage can be found at Namsan Hanok Village in central Seoul, a cluster of traditional Korean houses, or hanok, that belonged to Joseon Dynasty aristocrats. The English-language signs here provide so little context that, on a recent Saturday, American tourists Erin Smith and Karmi Shami thought the houses looked “a bit small for a palace.”
Some of the palaces, like Changdeok Palace with its “secret garden,” offer guides who speak foreign languages. Neff thinks the government should go further and have English-speaking Korean history majors serve as guides in the palaces, as part of their studies.
Neff himself wanted to volunteer as a guide, but to his amazement and disappointment, he was turned down. “They just don’t want foreigners to get involved,” Neff says. “There was no way of getting in there.”
Signs and guides aside, there’s the more fundamental question of how well the sites themselves are kept up and presented ― another area in which inadequacies are easy to find.
On a recent Saturday, the traditional-looking scene at Namsan Hanok Village was resounding with earsplitting electric guitar from a performance promoted by the government. At a quieter corner, a traditional-style wedding was being held; wedding guests overwhelmed the entire compound.
Elsewhere, soap bubbles of unknown origin were floating along on a stream from Mount Namsan. At one of the hanok, the space between the ground and the floor of the house was being used for storage; someone had crudely attempted to conceal it by attaching gray latticework that clashed with the colors of the traditional building. The most presentable part of the village was on a hill where a huge plaque announced the placement of a “time capsule” buried by the Seoul city government, a project whose connection to Joseon Dynasty culture is a mystery.
Neff, however, says, he’s seen worse: the pagoda in Pagoda Park near Insa-dong, Jongno, which he describes as “the worst disaster” he’s seen in Korea. “It’s extremely ugly,” he says. “They ruined it to protect it.”
Then where are the right places to go to feel the authentic spirit of the Land of Morning Calm? Neff takes a few seconds to mull it over, then mentions a few temples and walls around Mount Bukhan. “They’re beautiful only because they’re not developed,” he says. It’s become a pattern in Korea that when a place is developed as a tourist attraction, the next thing that happens is that restaurants and drinking establishments spring up around it.
Government officials seem to agree that there is a problem with Korea’s historic sites, though it remains questionable whether much is being done to address it.
“The budget for preserving the five old palaces last year was 2.7 billion won ($2.3 million), which is far from meeting the need,” says Kim Chi-gi, a staff member in charge of old palaces at Cultural Properties Administration, when asked about the dusty floor and damaged windows at Gyeongbok Palace.
The KNTO, under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is also suffering from a chronic financial shortage, according to Zhu. “Thirty-five billion won, half of our total annual budget, comes from the profit from duty-free shops at Incheon International Airport,” he says. “Only half is from the national treasury.”
Keum Gi-hyung of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism points out that there’s no single government body in charge of tourism. “At the moment, Cultural Properties Adminstration takes care of old palaces, and Namsan Hanok Village belongs to the Seoul City Government,” Keum says. “There’s no one big government body to take the responsibility and to be one strong, driving force. There is no concrete legal and systemized support.”
Nevertheless, the government has set a goal of more than doubling the annual number of foreign tourists by 2008: from 4.5 million to 10 million. Chung Un-sik, head of the Korea Tourism Association, has his doubts about this.
“The local tourism industry is suffering from chronic illness, and at the moment, it seems impossible to open the 10-million-tourist era by 2008,” he says. “The government must make more efforts to find alternatives to activate the industry.”
Another critique comes from a rather well-placed source: a member of the royal family. Lee Jung-jae is secretary general of the Lee Family Organization, which represents the remaining descendants of the Joseon royal family.
“The government is too bureaucratic to know how to make the most of the palaces as tourist attractions,” says Lee, who says he’s suggested uses for the palaces to the government but received lukewarm responses.
“Gyeongbok Palace, for one thing, has a big pavilion called Gyeonghoeru, on a large pond, which could be a good place for foreign diplomatic envoys’ meetings,” Lee says. “But the government is not willing to make such developments.”
All these critics seem to agree on one thing: that there’s great potential in Korea’s historic sites. The question is whether it will ever be fulfilled.
by Chun Su-jin