In 1987, my wife and I bought a hanok in Seoul’s Gahoe-dong district which has been our home ever since. Living in a hanok brings an understanding of many of the values that were once the foundation of Korean life. Sadly, it also brings an insight into the corruption that characterizes modern Korea.
After six hundred years at the heart of Korean cultural and social life, the traditional beauty of Seoul’s Gahoe-dong district, “the place where beauty gathers,” is being relentlessly destroyed. Gahoe-dong was the last district in Seoul where there were whole streets of traditional Korean houses, hanoks, preserving the ambience of Seoul a century ago. Most of these old homes have now being bulldozed and replaced by modern versions, built mainly of concrete but decorated with traditional architectural elements.
Gahoe-Dong is part of Bukchon, “The Northern Village,” a small area that lies between two former royal palaces, the Kyongbok Palace or “Palace of Shining Happiness” and the Ch’angdok Palace or “Palace of Illustrious Virtue.”
For most of its history, Bukchon was home to many of the nobles and scholars attached to the Royal Court. Old maps show the area had relatively few buildings in a natural, forested landscape that descended from the mountains.
During the 1920’s the character of Bukchon began to change. With the Japanese occupation, the role of the aristocracy and yangban diminished. Eventually, the once-privileged residents of Bukchon began to sell their land and move out. This was also a time when the Japanese redeveloped much of Seoul by erecting Japanese-style homes, commercial, and public buildings as part of their assault on Korean culture and values.
While many Koreans were swept along with the wishes of their new, Japanese rulers many also sought ways to resist and preserve the ideas and values they considered important in Korea’s heritage. One of these was a wealthy builder from the Busan area, Chung Sea Kwon (정세권) who owned one of the largest construction companies of his day. Chung felt that if ordinary people could have the opportunity to live in traditional Korean hanoks, it would help preserve Korean values in the face of an increasing pressure to adopt a Japanese way of life.
Chung seized the opportunity to buy up land in Gahoe-dong and elsewhere and began to build small hanoks for ordinary people. Since most Koreans had little money, Chung also provided financial help to buy them. It was Chung who built our own hanok in 1929 and lived in it before selling to the family from whom we bought it in 1987.
All of Chung’s houses were very well built. They were intended to be an expression of uniquely Korean ideas as well as family homes. The idea caught on and Bukchon became a hanok village for ordinary people. However, most of the hanoks Chung built were demolished as part of the Bukchon Plan, despite the fact that the architectural survey that preceded the plan had endorsed their quality and good state of repair.
Korea’s traditional architecture
Hanoks are single-storey buildings based on a framework of interlocking wooden beams that rest on blocks of stone. Other materials used to complete the buildings are also wholly natural such as straw, mulberry paper, and clay. The materials and methods are fundamentally the same as those used to build the royal palaces of the Choson dynasty as well as old Buddhist temples.
Until recently, the hanoks in Gahoe-Dong had survived the successive waves of re-development and re-building that have transformed most of the Seoul. Yet even here pressures for redevelopment were gaining power. Accordingly, Seoul City came to designate them as Local Cultural Assets on March 17, 1977, in an effort to protect them and preserve the area. The area was also designated as a Korean-style House Preservation District and put under the special care of the City, according to an entry (now removed) on the metropolitan government’s web site
Despite these measures, by 2000 only two streets remained entirely filled with hanoks giving a feel for how the district and much of Seoul had looked years ago. Elsewhere, apartment blocks and modern offices had already encroached, transforming Bukchon into a district where Western-style buildings predominated. About this time, the Metropolitan government began to consider how best to retain the little that remained of the hanok village as part of plans for the continuing restoration of the historic sites of North Seoul.
Towards the end of 2001, the Metropolitan government published detailed plans for the restoration and conservation of Bukchon using public money. The plans were based on a detailed architectural survey of most of the surviving hanoks and aimed to restore the district to its former beauty. The government announced grants and low interest loans to assist hanok owners with this work and set about a variety of related projects including resurfacing roads, improving street lighting, removing utility poles, and providing signage to help tourists and other visitors explore the area.
The Restoration Plan goes badly wrong
From that point on, things went badly wrong. While the original plans can only be praised for their imagination and sensitivity towards the restoration of Korea’s architectural heritage, what happened was the exact opposite. In our own street, for example, ours is now the only surviving traditional hanok.
New buildings that have replaced hanoks have been financed partly via government grants and low interest loans. In one example, an owner was given a government grant of KRW30 million and an interest-free long term loan of KRW20 million for “Hanok Repair and Redecoration.” This money was used to completely demolish a fine hanok and erect a modern two-storey building which was given a general business license to allow it operate under a number of categories, including as a restaurant. Objections eventually prevented the business operating and today the building lies empty.
The new developments potentially bring great profit to speculative developers who purchase the land at prices based on single storey traditional dwellings in order to re-sell it at far higher prices, exploiting loopholes in various regulations and often erecting two-storey buildings.
As a result, Seoul’s last district of original hanoks has been mostly destroyed; government grants to encourage preservation were used for demolition; and ordinary people were denied the chance to realize a fair value of their homes.
Sadly, there was more involved than the destruction of a hanok heritage. While some of the original hanok owners were happy to sell at what seemed a fair market price, others wished to remain in homes where they had lived for many years. These people were submitted to an unremitting campaign of harassment to “persuade” them to sell. This could even involve physical assaults. Worse could follow as the police, prosecutors, courts, and media all failed to fulfil the public duties that a citizen might expect in support of his very basic human rights.
Where once there had been a thriving community of ordinary Korean families, there is now a ghost town of empty buildings. An authentic living community has been eradicated. What really happened to the vast budget the Seoul Metropolitan Government allocated to the Bukchon Plan remains one of the unanswered questions of the Lee Myung Bak era.
Not the first time
Gahoe-dong and Bukchon have enjoyed special status as historic districts of cultural importance since 1976. Although this is supposed to ensure the protection the district’s hanoks, hanok numbers have declined each year. All the special plans and projects the metropolitan and local governments have launched have been accompanied by a decline in hanok numbers. Why so? The reason is quite simple, as the Bukchon plan makes evident, the laws and regulations to protect and preserve hanoks are simply not enforced; the protection plans are never implemented and the budgets associated with them are diverted to other activities.
Korea loses contact with its own culture
In every country, there are issues about what should be preserved from the past and what should be discarded. Every country tends to preserve its palaces, castles, and stately homes. In the UK and also in Europe, governments also preserves many more ordinary buildings such as farm buildings, ordinary houses, shops, and public houses. Some are preserved because of their beauty, some because of their construction techniques, some for the insights they provide into social history and the way people once lived. The preservation work involves public money, donations from business, and subscriptions from the general public. There is a broad consensus that this work is just as important as, say, preserving famous works of art because all these manifestations of human skill and creativity help define the culture and traditions of different peoples. It is so sad that these ideas are not well understood in Korea and that important decisions about what, in reality, is done to preserve Korean culture should be left to petty bureaucrats, small construction companies, and speculators.
In some ways, there are special problems in Korea. During the Japanese occupation, there was a determined attempt to eradicate Korean culture. This was followed by the Korean War which splintered families, destroyed the social order, and caused immense physical destruction. Next came the period of military rule when individual liberties were suppressed as the country started to build a modern economy at breakneck speed. Perhaps it is not surprising that some Koreans have lost touch with their own traditions and culture as a result. Be that as it may, the decisions made by today’s generation will determine whether anything will be left of Korea’s distinctive architectural culture for their grandchildren to enjoy.
The root cause of this is corruption, by no means a problem unique to South Korea. However, within the OECD, South Korea, sadly, is distinguished by ubiquitous, pervasive corruption that has become an integral part of government – from the offices of presidents to provincial and local government. At least, this is the conclusion of Professors Doh Chull Shin and Chong Min Park, based on a research project into the lives of ordinary Korean citizens which they reported in a paper in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies in 2005. The story of the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014 is but one indication that corruption today is just as much a part of government as it was in 2005.
There is an enormous gulf between what city officials publicly proclaim and what they allow to happen. The Bukchon Plan talked of the need to protect, preserve, and restore using authentic techniques and materials. Yet city officials routinely approved wholesale demolition in order to erect new structures, and ignored the basic human rights of residents.
Surely it is time to halt all the destruction of old buildings in Gahoe-dong, to demolish new buildings with illegal features, and for society as a whole to consider the fate of the district? Is it too much to expect that a country of Korea’s economic power should find the time and the resources to preserve a small window into ordinary life a century ago? Throughout Europe, there are many examples of towns, districts, and buildings of a similar or older age than Gahoe-dong that are rigorously protected and preserved. The lesson from other countries is that such preservation can attract tourism, enhance local culture, and make the modern urban environment a richer, more enjoyable place for all.
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David Kilburn worked internationally in the advertising industry for many years before becoming a journalist covering business in East Asia. You may connect with him by clicking here. His web site, www.kahoidong.com and YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/kilburnda/ document what has happened to Gahoe-dong and document cultural events organised in the Kilburn’s hanok to raise awareness of the issues.
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Note: The views, services and/or experiences expressed in this Featured Post are solely those of the contributor.