Nationalism and Preserving Korea's Buried Past: The Office of Cultural Properties and Archaeological Heritage Management in South Korea

By Il Pai, Hyung | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Nationalism and Preserving Korea's Buried Past: The Office of Cultural Properties and Archaeological Heritage Management in South Korea


Il Pai, Hyung, Antiquity


Introduction

The origins of Korean archaeological heritage management can be traced to 1916, when Japan's Resident-general Government in Korea (Chosen Sotokufu: 1910-1945) promulgated the first comprehensive laws of historical preservation called the 'Regulations for the Preservation of Korea's Remains and Relics'.(1) They reflected a combination of late Meiji and early Taisho era laws tailored to the Korean peninsula such as Lost and Stolen Antiquities (1909); Temples and Shrines Protection Laws (1911); the Preservation of Stone and Metal Inscriptions (1916); and most significantly, the establishment of an administrative apparatus, the Committee on the Investigation of Korean Antiquities (1916). The Chosen Sotokufu Museum Laws governing art exhibitions and display were compiled from Imperial Museum laws (Tokyo National Museum 1976) dating from 1890-1907 (Chosen Sotokufu 1924: 215-30). The implementation of these laws was targeted at three main goals in the cultural management of Japanese colonial possessions: firstly in government control over reporting, accounting, storage and trafficking of registered state cultural properties. The cumbersome, exacting and time-consuming bureaucratic procedures, which ruled that all discoveries, changes, investigations and transportation of state properties be submitted on exact forms to the local police, were designed to deter and discourage individual ownership. By the end of the colonial era, nearly all of the registered treasures, historical remains and natural monuments(2) were recorded as either state-owned, temple-owned, provincial/quasi-coorporation-owned and, in rare exceptions, individually owned (Chosen Sotokufu 1937). Secondly, through the preservation and restoration of traditional architecture and monuments in their original location and pristine form for exhibition and tourism; the revenue from ticket sales was used to maintain the sites. Thirdly, by promoting archaeological prospection (O 1997: 31) in order to register more state properties.

The first five-year plan of systematic archaelogical investigations, excavations and surveys (Chosen Sotokufu 1918-1937) that were launched following the establishment of the Committee on the Investigation of Korean Antiquities in 1916 marked the beginnings of the establishment of the field of Korean archaeology (Umehara Sueji 1969). They resulted in the excavations of Lelang tombs and sites dating to the Han dynasty commandery system (c. 2nd century BC-2nd century AD) and Koguryo painted tombs in and around the city of P'yongyang; Three Kingdom Kofun period (c. 3rd century-7th century) remains identified as Paekche, Silla and Kaya in the regions of Puyo, Kyongju and Kimhae respectively. At the end of the colonial period, the cities of P'yongyang, Kaesong, Puyo and Kyongju all exhibited recently excavated archaeological remains in addition to the Chosen Sotokufu museum(3) in Seoul.

Since independence from Japan in 1945 and the subsequent political/ideological division of the peninsula following the Korean War, archaeological heritage management has continued to occupy a central place in the competing claims of legitimacy and sovereignty in both North and South Korea. While both nations use archaeology to depict their people as the sole rightful heirs to a glorious Korean past, this paper addresses the case of South Korea.(4) It is divided into three parts. First, I will give a brief background to the ideology and politics involved in the administration of the Office of Cultural Properties, the supreme institution in South Korea responsible for all heritage management activities. Second, I will provide an overview of the main issues and challenges facing archaeologists and their excavations. Third, I will discuss how current heritage management activities are directly linked to today's pressing issues including the commercial development of heritage sites for tourism.

The Office of Cultural Properties and preserving the spirit of independence

Since October 1961, the Office of Cultural Properties (Munhwajae kwalliguk) (hereafter OCP) has been the central bureau involved in the management of culture and heritage.

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