This is a difficult post to write. I have visited Korea a few times, it is a country I love, and I admire their history, the palaces and the temples. Yet, the current Korean obsession with simplistic issues like Takeshima, or Dokdo (or the Liancourt Rocks) make it a difficult country to talk about. North Korea, of course, is always on our minds, too, with bombastic propaganda and its isolationist juche philosophy - while begging for food and energy aid from the West.
Meanwhile, in the very heart of Seoul, there are some beautiful quarters that Koreans appear to care less about.
The hanok are wooden houses built in a traditional Korean style that I like very much. My friend David Kilborn has devoted a lot of time trying to alert people to their destruction. On his blog, kahoidong.com, he points out that it is the Korean government that is supporting the destruction of these wonderful homes. I cannot help but wonder why that same Korean government devotes so much effort (even naming an expensive assault ship Dokdo as if it really matters) to barren rocks in the Sea of Japan while Seoul's own historical heritage is ignored.
As David explains:
Surely it is time to halt all the destruction of old buildings in Kahoi-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 the last couple of short streets in the city that provide a window into ordinary life a century ago? In the UK, there are many examples of towns, districts, and buildings of a similar age to Kahoi-dong that are rigorously protected and preserved. The lesson from other countries is that such preservation work can attract tourism, enhance local culture, and make the modern urban environment a richer, more enjoyable place for all.
Earlier this year, an elderly disgruntled Korean man set fire to the 610-year-old landmark that was considered South Korea's top national treasure. The Namdaemun Gate had survived both the Japanese imperial period and the Korean war. The man felt he had not been properly compensated when the city had claimed his property for development.
Do watch the documentary film made by David Kilburn. Korean and English versions here.
I imagine hanoks are models for how we could live simply and beautifully, if we had no access to petrolium products including plastic building materials and paints, and no heating/cooling based on the fossile fuels or nuclear energy that we take for granted today.
(Photo from Hanok-de)