Questions remain over how to manage ‘difficult heritage’ sites

The Home of Seo Jeong-ju in Gwanak District, Seoul / Korea Times file

Several “difficult heritage” sites in Seoul, which bear cultural heritage designations but have a history associated with collaborators during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial occupation of Korea, are reigniting questions over how to manage and remember them, in the wake of March 1 Independence Movement Day.These establishments are government-designated cultural heritage sites that are conserved, protected and exhibited with tax money, yet fail to display any information on their significance in relation to their pro-Japan history, according to critics.”Difficult heritage” refers to cultural heritage with a meaningful yet contested and unsettling history, such as slavery, imperialism and colonialism. One example is the Yun Family’s House at Namsangol Hanok Village in downtown Seoul. The building holds a wide range of traditional cultural events and experiences for visitors and receives many local and international tourists.

It is a replica of a traditional hanok property in Jongno District that belonged to Yun Deok-yeong, an uncle of Empress Sunjeonghyo, the wife of Emperor Sunjong who was the last king of the 1392-1910 Joseon Dynasty. Yun, who served as a nominated member of the Japanese Imperial House of Nobility, built the hanok for his concubine. The building, however, holds no sign of his pro-Japan, anti-nationalist past .Another controversial example of difficult heritage is the Home of Seo Jeong-ju in the artist village of Seoul’s southern Gwanak District. The two-story house was opened to the public in 2011 to commemorate of work of the late Korean poet Seo, who built the house in 1970 and lived there for 30 years. Although Seo is considered one of the best poets in 20th-century Korean literature and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times, he was labeled as a pro-Japan collaborator in 2009 by a presidential committee aimed at identifying pro-Japanese activists.

Signboards at the building introduce his literary achievements and explain some of his possessions on display but show no information on his pro-Japan activities.Many point out that these heritage sites have a historical legacy worthy of conservation because they are still meaningful in the present as proof of the past, shedding light on possibly “shameful” atrocities and conflicts.This is a different approach from previous cases in Korea where buildings built during the Japanese colonial era were torn down.In 1995, the Korean government began demolishing the former Japanese Government General building built in front of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul.Also in 2015, the Seoul city government tore down an annex of the former National Tax Service building near Deoksu Palace, as it had been built by the Japanese in 1937 in an alleged attempt to conceal the palace, to mark the 70th anniversary of liberation .UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee highlighted in January last year in its guiding principles on the protection of sites of memory associated with recent conflicts that designating difficult heritage requires multiple perspectives in consideration of history. “The memories of all participants, no matter how big or small a group, should be considered equally relevant, as well as those both victors and 슬롯 victims, and the offenders and the offended,” the committee said.

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