Korean Cultural Heritage 101

Written by on September 1, 2013 in Special Report, Worldwide Korea Bloggers

South Korea has a very distinctive system to preserve cultural heritage. If you frequently read about Korean culture, you most probably heard about the National Treasure system and most likely you also know that the famous Namdaemun in Seoul is designated as National Treasure #1. Bu did you know that the heritage system is a bit more complex and a lot more widespread than that? Let’s take a look at how Korea aims to preserve its culture!

Namdaemun at night, in 2006. Photo: tylerdurden1, Flickr, CC-BY-2.0


Cultural properties are managed by the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), a government agency currently holding a sub-ministerial rank, headquartered in Daejeon.  Besides taking usual measures to preserve the nation’s history, the CHA  also established the Korea National University of Cultural Heritage, which aims to bring knowledgeable and skillful workforce to the field.  The CHA also maintains several research institutes, the National Palace Museum and a handful of offices to manage the palaces throughout the country.

Fun tidbit: in 2012 the Administration had a budget equaling nearly 600 million USD.


Korean cultural heritage is defined in five major categories and each has sub-classifications.

State-designated heritage is what the CHA directly decides on, based on the principles of  the Cultural Heritage Protection Act.  It differentiates between National Treasures, Treasures, Historic Sites, Scenic Sites, Natural Monuments, Important Intangible Cultural Heritage and Important Folklore Cultural Heritage. The first four categories relate to tangible things, like buildings, documents, sculptures, handicraft, armory and archaeological  findings. Intangible heritage is what you cannot touch with your hands but are equally important in a nation’s history: literature, theatre, dance, music and craftsmanship (not the actual articles they make but the skills and knowledge it requires, like how to make traditional hats, bows, masks etc). Natural monuments are animals, plants, caves, geological formations, natural phenomena; this includes forests, natural habitats of indigenous animals and the like.

Ganggangsullae, probably the most famous female dance. Photo: CHA

Ganggangsullae, probably the most famous female dance is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 8.  Photo: CHA

Fun tidbit #1: Did you know that some special artisan soju and yakju types are inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage? For example Gyeongju Gyodong Beopju (경주 교동법주) is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No.96. It has been made by the members of one family in Gyeongju for over 300 years now and it is brewed by a special double-fermentation process.

Making beopju. Photo:  44kkong.tistory.com

Making beopju. Photo: 44kkong.tistory.com

Fun tidbit #2: a famous old pine tree was once given the rank of a minister! The Jeongipumsong is at  Songnisan, in North Chungcheong province and according to a legend, King Sejo in the 15th century was once carried under it but his palanquin got stuck in the low branches of the tree. As soon as the king said ‘The palanquin got stuck’, the pine tree raised its branches so the king could pass. As a reward, the tree was officially declared to be a minister by the king. The tree is preserved as a Natural Monument.

Jeongipumsong, the famous pine tree. Photo: KNPS

Jeongipumsong, the famous pine tree. Photo: KNPS

Tip: Treasures and National Treasures are similar in requirements, the difference is that National Treasures are considered important not only from a Korean point of view but generally for humankind. 

Celadon vase from the Goryeo Dynasty, National Treasure No. 68. Photo: User Korea history, cc-by-sa-3.0

Besides the state, provinces and cities also have the right to designate cultural assets that have not been selected by the CHA as state-designated. They work with similar categories, preserving tangible, intangible heritage, monuments (like tombs, relic sites, animals and even minerals) and elements of folklore.

The third category is Cultural Heritage Material, which are regionally important assets that had not been included in the first two major divisions. Then we have the Cultural Heritage of Early Modern Times, these are valued architectural structures or facilities built between the late 19th century and 1940, in need of preservation because of their poor condition. And lastly, we have the category of Undesignated Cultural Heritage. It includes movable items like wood blocks, paintings, books, whose export is prohibited due to their value, as well as cultural heritage buried under the ground or concealed in the sea.

Some of the preserved cultural heritage of Korea has been inscribed into the list of UNESCO World Heritage, as well, with a few others under consideration.

Dosan Seowon; one of Korea’s many Confucian Academies, nine of which are part of UNESCO’s World Heritage program. Photo by Steve46814, CC-BY-SA-3.0

How many?

As of July 2013 there are 411 National Treasures in Korea, 2317 items designated as Treasures, 485 Historic Sites (including for example the Hwaseong Fortess and the Fortress Walls of Seoul), 104 Scenic Sites, including the so-called “Moses Miracle” that happens roughly twice a year as the sea parts between Jindo Island and Modo Island. There are also a 459 Natural Monuments, a 134 Intangible Cultural Heritage items, over a thousand assets designated as Important Folklore Cultural Heritage a roughly 550 buildings and structures of Early Modern Times registered.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Je5wlz86Sgg]

Fortress walls of Seoul at Bugaksan. Photo: Palandri at Panoramio.

Fortress walls of Seoul at Bugaksan. Photo: Palandri at Panoramio.

Source: Cultural Heritage Administration

About the Author

Timea Baksa

I'm from Hungary. I got attracted to Korea through music and movies. I'm a blogger on Asian culture, an editorial writer at Hellokpop magazine and a contributor to Wikipedia. I love learning languages, currently trying to make my way through Korean.