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[Herald Interview] Heritage chief eyes fashioning ‘the old’ to modern tastes

By Choi Si-young

Published : May 29, 2024 - 15:42

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Korea Heritage Service Administrator Choi Eung-chon poses for a photo ahead of a recent interview with The Korea Herald at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Korea Heritage Service Administrator Choi Eung-chon poses for a photo ahead of a recent interview with The Korea Herald at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

An agency whose mission has long centered on protecting national heritage, the newly renamed Korea Heritage Service has a new mandate: to fashion heritage to modern tastes.

Choi Eung-chon, the inaugural administrator of the agency, said renaming the 79-year-old Cultural Heritage Administration on May 17 reflected a change in the institution’s focus toward providing “services” that enable the public to take advantage of national heritage.

“Take Gyeongbokgung for example. That’s where Joseon kings oversaw matters of the state, but not anymore. We have to preserve the site, but just as important is how we put those historic sites to modern use,” Choi said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald, referring to the main Joseon-era (1392-1910) palace in Seoul.

Modernizing heritage

The May renaming of the agency solidified its commitment to modernizing traditions. Offering a hint of the changes ahead, K-pop girl group NewJeans headlined the palace show commemorating the new name.

The show took place in front of Gyeongbokgung’s Geunjeong Hall -- a venue chosen to build on the growing awareness of the Joseon-era building.

K-pop girl group NewJeans performs at Gyeongbokgung on May 21. (Yonhap) K-pop girl group NewJeans performs at Gyeongbokgung on May 21. (Yonhap)

“Many people came to appreciate the true beauty of the hall when BTS performed there,” Choi said, referring to the seven-member band’s performance in October 2020. Choi explained that the Gucci Cruise fashion show at Geunjeong Hall added momentum last year, gradually shifting how people look at historic sites.

“Heritage isn’t something to be looked at from afar anymore. People living today should be able to come close to it and really feel its presence. They should have a place in it,” Choi said.

Trend in recognition

Rather than palaces, classified as cultural heritage, countries are now seeking to have their natural and intangible heritage recognized by UNESCO, according to Choi.

Choi’s efforts to reshape the role of his agency extend beyond the renaming and towards looking at Korean heritage through the three UNESCO classifications: cultural, natural and intangible.

“Just recently, I traveled to Homigot. The scenic nature there is just amazing,” Choi said of the country’s easternmost part in North Gyeongsang Province where the first sunrise of the new year is celebrated.

Korea Heritage Service Administrator Choi Eung-chon speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Herald at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Korea Heritage Service Administrator Choi Eung-chon speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Herald at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

“The lighthouse there is cultural heritage, but the stunning landscape overall makes up natural heritage,” Choi said, explaining that a holistic approach to identifying how cultural, natural and intangible heritage represent national heritage is crucial. The KHS is in talks with the Oceans Ministry over better promoting Homigot, Choi added.

In December UNESCO will decide whether to add to its list of intangible cultural heritage “jang making” or “knowledge, beliefs and practices of fermentation pastes and sauces.” Efforts such as greater funding of nationally designated craftspeople are also underway, according to Choi.

Leading by example

Assisting countries in preserving and promoting their heritage will get a boost under Choi. “Sharing our know-how shows we’re just as interested in giving back to the international community as we’re in advancing our own agendas,” Choi stressed.

For the next three years, the KHS will aid Cambodia’s efforts to preserve its temple complex Angkor Wat. Korea is one of five countries, following the US and Germany, that has offered assistance.

Last year, Choi’s team handling official development assistance received praise for the restoration work on Hong Nang Sida, a Laotian temple complex that stretches south to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The Laos temple marks Korea’s first ODA outreach in 2013.

The Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia (KHS) The Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia (KHS)

“So 10 years on, we have our first initiative commended by UNESCO experts at a review meeting. I’d say that’s a global recognition we can be very proud of,” Choi said. Elsewhere, Seoul is currently helping Egypt create digital replicas of key pieces of its cultural heritage.

Korea, elected to the 21-member World Heritage Committee last year on a four-year term, has been asked to host its annual committee meeting in 2026, the first since 1977, according to Choi.

Agency officials have privately communicated that hosting the meeting will be another milestone in Korea’s push to build its global profile as a country able to look after the needs of the international community.

Priorities

Choi is working on a way to encourage people to wear hanbok properly. Over time, too many tweaks have been made to hanbok that are rented mostly to tourists, concerning the authorities who believe visitors may be misguided about hanbok.

“Factors like catering to the market need for more ‘fashionable hanbok’ and higher costs involved in using the right kind of hanbok fabric, as well as limited opportunities to actually try on the clothing all compounded the problem,” Choi said of growing criticism that his agency is not doing anything to prevent hanbok from losing its “Korean identity.”

Tourists in hanbok at Gyeongbokgung on May 1 (Yonhap) Tourists in hanbok at Gyeongbokgung on May 1 (Yonhap)

Interagency coordination will take place soon, Choi noted, adding that the Korea Heritage Service is already working with the Jongno District Office to address concerns. The district is home to Joseon-era palaces, and hanbok rental shops flourish in the surrounding neighborhood, as people wearing hanbok are given free admission to palaces.

“More carrots than sticks is the way to go on this particular issue,” Choi said of his commitment to fostering a “climate of reciprocity,” making clear that shops will be incentivized to offer proper hanbok. That includes taking suggestions from the shops, Choi added.

Cracking down is not an option, according to Choi. “Whether you’re headed in the right direction sometimes matters more than the fact that you’re going somewhere.”