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Plan to demolish famous 'kisaeng' house sparks controversy over Seoul's cultural asset policy

     The Seoul city government early this month began a process of deciding which of the capital's modern buildings have sufficient cultural and historical value to warrant preservation.

     City Hall said it would push for the designation as quasi-cultural assets of buildings with cultural, historical and architectural importance that were built before 1975.

     "There are some newer buildings that should be spared from blind development," said Kim Seung-kyu, director-general of the Bureau of Culture and Tourism.

     The move came after a 90-year-old movie theater with outdated facilities was demolished in October last year.

     City Hall did not give the building's destruction a second thought until last month, when government officials came under fire from the public for their seeming indifference to culture and history.

     Taken aback by the criticism, the city government not only came up with the quasi-cultural asset measure, but also suspended a construction company's application to tear down a once famous "kisaeng" ("geisha") house, "Samchonggak," at the foot of Mt. Pugak. The company plans to erect a housing complex on the site.

     The suspension came in response to a local civic group's insistence that the kisaeng house should be preserved in recognition of its historical importance as well as for environmental reasons.

     The construction firm strongly protested the move, calling the suspension "administrative violence" against the principle of private property rights.

     "We went completely by the book in formulating our construction plan and sounded out the Songbuk-gu (ward) office about any possible legal problems that might arise," said Kim Young-tai, executive director of Hwaeom Construction. "We were told by the ward office that there were no legal roadblocks and everything was going smoothly until the civic group made the unreasonable claim that the kisaeng house was worthy of designation as a cultural asset."

     Kim dismissed the group's insistence that the 27-year-old kisaeng house has historical, artistic and architectural importance.

     "Some press reports had it that some inter-Korean and Korea-Japan talks were held at Samchonggak. But, these claims are groundless," Kim said. "We received confirmation from the Unification Ministry that no such talks were ever held there. It was only the venue for dinner party for officials involved in an inter-Korean meeting on two occasions in the early 1970s."

     Opened in 1972, Samchonggak reached its peak of popularity under the military regime of former President Park Chung Hee.

     The general public, however, had an unfavorable image of the luxurious kisaeng house.

     Many government officials and politicians frequented Samchonggak, giving rise to new terms like "backdoor politics" and "Yojong (kisaeng house) politics" that are considered symbolic of the Korean political climate in the 1970s. In next decade, when the nation's export drive got into full swing, many conglomerate executives entertained foreign clients at Samchonggak.

     Its popularity began to wane in the late 1980s amid an increase in the number of luxurious hotels and restaurants in the city. Samchonggak's owners tried to keep the kisaeng house alive by turning it into a restaurant and wedding hall, but its fate was sealed last year when the building was auctioned off to Hwaeom Construction.

     A company official said that far from being a historical landmark, Samchonggak is nothing more than a kisaeng house that lost its popularity.

     "I totally agree that cultural assets should be preserved at any cost," Kim said. "But I don't think Samchonggak has sufficient historical value to be designated as a cultural asset." To back his claim, Kim said officials at the state-run Cultural Properties Administration agreed that Samchonggak has little value as a cultural asset.

     Calling the building a former hotbed of corrupt politics, Kim said, "What should we tell future generations when they ask what kind of values have been preserved at Samchonggak?" Despite its unfavorable public image, those opposed to the construction plan say Samchonggak is worth preserving.

     "Buildings are receptacles of culture," said Park Yong-shin, an official at the Citizens' Movement for Environmental Justice (CMEJ). "As seen in the case of the demolished movie theater, we've been removing our modern-era cultural assets and we should stop it."

     Saying it's worth preserving certain cultural sites even if people feel ashamed of them, Park noted that Samchonggak is a necessary reminder of both the "disgraceful" politics of the 1970s and the entertainment culture of the privileged at that time.

     "In addition, the six beautiful buildings at Samchonggak were built in the traditional Korean style, which will be lost forever if we demolish it," he said. "It would not make sense for City Hall to green-light the Samchonggak removal plan at a time when it is trying to build more traditional Korean houses to attract foreign visitors."

     Park went on to argue that the construction of houses on the 5,800-pyong (18,000 sq. meters) site, which sits at the foot of Mt. Pukhan in northern Seoul, would have a negative impact on the environment.

     "There are about 350 80- to 120-year-old pine trees at Samchonggak," Park said. "It's obvious that this forest would be damaged if the construction project goes ahead as planned."

     Lee Byung-chun, a researcher at the Forestry Research Institute, agreed, saying the building of new houses on the site would have a negative impact on the area's overall ecological system.

     While the Seoul city government may have quieted the protesting civic group by suspending the construction application until Feb. 24, a City Hall committee must still decide on that day whether Samchonggak is worthy of preservation.

     The government is also now facing fierce protests and threats of a lawsuit from the construction firm.

     Park of the CMEJ said he hopes the city will decide to buy Samchonggak and use it as a guesthouse for foreign visitors.

     But Kim Sung-kyu, head of the city's Culture and Tourism Bureau, said the cost of doing so makes such a move virtually impossible.

     "Instead, if it is decided that Samchonggak is to be demolished, we will propose to the construction firm that it exchange the site for other city-owned land," Kim said.

     However, the construction firm was not open to such a proposal.

     "We don't plan to give in because we don't see any problem with our plan," said Kim of Hwaeom Construction. "But we would be willing to discuss with City Hall the possibility of accepting compensation for the land."

     Attributing to the demolished movie theater City Hall's "sudden awakening to culture and history", he argued that officials were simply going too far in their preservation efforts.


Updated: 02/17/2000
by Chang Jae-soon Staff reporter

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