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Blowing the cobwebs off Korean heritage

Korea’s history offers it all ― kingdoms rise and fall, wars smolder and blaze, religions wax and wane, orthodoxies are established and questioned. Across this colorful tapestry royals strut, heroes ride, rebels plot and villains scuttle.

Why then, is English language presentation of so many traditional Korean heritage assets so unremittingly dull?

It is a question which vexes Joanne (Ji-myung) Kim, president of the Korea Heritage Education Institute.

Korean music, movies and dramas have put the country on the pop culture map, but when it comes to showcasing Korea’s heritage and history on informational signage, websites and pamphlets designed to explain them, everything gets lost in a clutter of dates, dimensions and missed messages.

“Most content is what bureaucrats or scholars want to tell, not what people want to hear,” Kim said in a recent interview. “It is very difficult to change this, it is part of the mindset. A whole system is at the bottom of this problem.”

“There is so much printed material, so many films, so many programs,” she sighed. “But the content is too academic, too difficult, too dry.”

Her organization, established in May of last year, has the mission of helping the world understand Korean and Korean history through globalization (“world standard communications”), digitization (“the delivery channel for young people”), and popularization (“fun and relevant storytelling”). It consults with the Presidential Council on the National Brand, the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration (KCHA), and a number of local governments to promote heritage in a more interesting, dynamic manner.

For example, an English-language informational sign for Tripitaka Koreana, the oldest intact Buddhist scriptures carved into 81,258 wooden blocks, would have to change, said Kim. “The first line on the sign about the national treasure is not about the asset itself, but about the bureaucracy in charge of production work.”
Joanne Kim discusses her passion for traditional Korean culture on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. (Yonhap News)
Joanne Kim discusses her passion for traditional Korean culture on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“I don’t think visitors are interested in what governmental body worked for it!” Kim said, with admirable restraint. “We need more creative input: designers, journalists, novelists, foreigners and young people.”

One sign about a building at Gongju, the capital of the Baekje Dynasty (475-538), reads, “On the right, a river flows,” a line Kim spotted as irrelevant and out of place.

“Why is that information there? Because whoever wrote it was writing it from his desk!” she said, adding she convinced officials to make changes. “I persuaded them that the figures on the size of buildings are not important ... And there were lots of redundancies.”

As the holder of a degree in English literature and an advanced degree in mass communications and simultaneous interpretation, Kim is well equipped to do something about the problem. Having lived for years in Europe, and serving as the head interpreter at global events including the Asia-Europe Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Kim not only has a good idea of what foreign visitors might like to see and do, she also wishes local heritage managers would benchmark overseas attractions.

“Take the Joseon Royal Tombs. If we followed other countries’ practices, the space would need to be redesigned,” she said. “At Stonehenge, for example, ticket stands are underground, and the toilets and parking are well away, so there are no modern buildings hindering the view.”

She concedes how difficult it is to import overseas expertise, which would invalidate local jobs.

“Korean officials may think they can manage these assets by themselves,” she said. “Officials make the plans and have the budgets and the rights. It is not so easy for them to assign a foreign company.”

Kim said she is seeing some progress in her attempts for improvement. “The KCHA (the official body which oversees ancient sites) now understands what I mean,” she said. “They are getting local governments to contact me.”

A pertinent question for someone in her position may be whether traditional heritage ― a badly overplayed element in the Korean tourism advertising of the 1990s ― retains relevance in an era in which pop culture, high technology and cuisine are being furiously promoted as the core pillars of Brand Korea. While other Korea promoters endlessly spout on about hallyu, or the “Korean Wave,” Kim does not promote “pop history.”

“In branding, you have to ask, ‘What is the authentic content of a people?’” Kim said. “Korea now is not totally severed from its past. This is the material from which you can create concepts and stories.”

In this market, Kim has an ally: Lee Bae-young, the chairperson of the National Brand Council, and a professor of history.

Opportunities to mix and match with history are plenty, as Kim explains it. A historical drama “Daejanggeum,” an Asia-wide hit about a skilled cook of humble birth rising to become the first female royal physician, is one instance she gave. “It was 99 percent fictional, so we have to discover and find out the hidden history of the ordinary people, the lower classes. Many historians writing today focus on the micro-history. It is a new field with new horizons.”

Another element of her work is helping list local assets as UNESCO world heritage sites. Her intention in so doing so, however, does not stem from that all-too-common local lust for international recognition and glorification.

“UNESCO will threaten to de-list if a local government destroys or changes part of a site,” she says. “So that is a very positive function, because in Korea residents of an area hate to be listed.

It brings down the prices of their land and their houses.”

Kim keeps busy ― she has four English-language books in the works, is working with KCHA on digital heritage projects, and is organizing a round-table with United Arab Emirates to promote people-to-people contact.

So, has her organization suffered any failures? “Raising funds for operations,” she admits bluntly. “But now we are registered as a qualified non-profit organization to ask for donations, our work will gather momentum.” 

(Yonhap News)
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