When Korea`s royal tombs from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) were officially listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites on June 27 by the World Heritage Committee, the Korean media lost no time spreading the news.
The Joseon royal tombs are Korea`s ninth addition to the World Heritage list. The UNESCO committee decided to include all 40 royal tombs from the Joseon Dynasty in recognition of their unique architecture and choice of landscape based on Confucianism.
Unsurprisingly, Korean government officials and business people in the tourism industry are expecting a positive development. Culture critics and analysts also point to the possibility that more Korean sites might make it onto the prestigious list in the near future.
The public`s attention is focused on the tombs of 27 kings from the Joseon Dynasty, together with those belonging to queens, princes and other members of the royal family. The Joseon period (1392-1910) left a number of cultural treasures that make up the bulk of Korean identity.
The surrounding areas around the royal tombs are typically protected by a hill to the north, water to the south and layers of mountain ridges in the distance, observing Confucian tradition and the geomancy studies that dominated the Joseon period.
Each royal tomb is also decorated with green gardens with pine trees arranged like a folding screen - a design not found in any other Asian nation. In addition, the tomb statues in the shape of warriors, tigers, horses and other features, offer insight into the rich art history of the dynasty.
Lee Kun-moo, head of the state-run Cultural Heritage Administration, said the UNESCO`s decision to add the tombs to the list highlights their historical and cultural value, and added that Korea should make more efforts to to preserve the tombs for the international community.
Kora`s first listing was in 1995 when Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, Haeinsa Temple`s Janggyeong Panjeon and Jongmyo Shrine were given the designation.
In 1997, two more sites - Changdeokgung Palace Complex and Hwaseong Fortress - made it to the site list. In 2000, Gyeongju Historic Areas and Dolmen sites in Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa were included. Most recently, in 2007, the UNESCO committee added Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes.
But Lee Kun-moo, who observed the competition surrounding the World Heritage list, said it was time to take a more systematic approach to catch up with other nations in the intensifying race.
For instance, the number of China`s World Heritage sites has already reached 38. In consideration of China`s rich history and cultural traditions, that number might not come as a surprise, but the Chinese government has also promoted their candidate sites fairly aggressively in recent years.
"When I visited Seville for the World Heritage list, I noticed that the competition between different countries for formal recognition is extremely tough, almost to the level of a battle," Lee said.
China sent an entourage of 60 officials to the UNESCO committee meeting, staging lobbying campaigns for their cultural assets in concert with China`s diplomatic channels.
China`s particularly keen attention to World Heritage status underscores the impact of the listing. Once labeled World Heritage sites, the cultural areas in question tend to get higher international recognition and a sharp increase in the number of inbound tourists.
The UNESCO recognition also sends tangible benefits to related culture, service, tourism, and even character business sectors as the sites included in the list appeal strongly to international tourists.
For example, right after the UNESCO committee included Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes to the World Heritage list in 2007, the number of foreign tourists to the region jumped 21.1 percent last year. More importantly, a recent survey showed that the satisfaction level of tourists who opted to visit the Jeju sites shot up to about 90 percent.
The history of the UNESCO World Heritage list, however, is relatively short. It began in 1972 to preserve historic and cultural sites around the world. Korea belatedly jumped onto the World Heritage bandwagon two decades later, and the government is now keen to add more sites to the list.
Korea has just started promoting Hahoe Village in Andong and Yandong Village in Wolseong, both of which are renowned for excellent preservation of Confucian traditions. All eyes are now trained on the next World Heritage committee meeting in Brazil next year.
By Yang Sung-jin