Modern Cultural Heritage

For over 500 years, Korea was ruled by the same royal family. Then, in 1897, King Gojong, the last King of the Joseon dynasty became emperor Gojong, the first Korean emperor. He named this empire Daehan. Following the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the Japanese forced Korea to become a protectorate of Imperial Japan and deprived them of their diplomatic sovereignty. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and ruled the country under a Governor-General immediately trying to suppress many traditional Korean customs including the Korean language itself. The Korean urban landscape was especially transformed through Japanese intervention in the interwar period (Cwiertka, 2010).

Ritual house of Princess Bok-on and Kim Byeong-ju (Source:

Modern cultural heritage (or national registered cultural heritage) refers to cultural assets mainly dating between 1876-1971 (50 years before the current year) chosen by the government of the Republic of Korea (Pan and Min, 2009). These sites play an important role in establishing the authenticity and identity of Seoul because they contain traces of Seoul’s modernisation process. Many modern cultural heritage sites are distributed throughout Seoul, but most are not recognised as cultural assets as they are regarded as an unwanted legacy of Japanese colonial rule (ibid).

The above picture is the ritual house of Princess Bok-on and Kim Byeongju (the emperor’s son-in-law). After the dissolution of the Korean Imperial Army in 1907 (the 44th year of King Gojong’s reign), Kim Byeong-ju built this house and lived there. In 1910, he refused the title of baron given to him by the Japanese emperor in an effort to integrate him into the Japanese royal family and he committed suicide here in protest against the Japanese colonial rule. For the recognition of this historical and architectural value, this site was registered as the modern cultural heritage site in 2002.

Most modern cultural heritage sites, such as the above example, are inextricably linked to Japanese colonial rule. 220 (96%) out of 227 registered modern cultural heritage sites are related to the Japanese colonial era, which can be divided into three periods: before Japanese colonial rule (pre-1909), during Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945), and after Japanese colonial rule (post 1946) [1]. Accordingly, I chose each example because of its historical significance: one before, two during and one after Japanese colonial rule.

Before Japanese colonial rule: Gyeongung Yangijae (1906). This academy was built by the Daehan Empire in 1906 as a modern educational institution for the children of the imperial family and aristocrats (Yuk, 2011). It lasted from 1906 to 1910, when Japan annexed the Daehan Empire. It was then lent to the Church of England in 1912. The history of Yangijae represents an excellent example of how Korean people have perceived Japanese colonial rule concerning foreign countries.

During Japanese colonial rule: Changgyeonggung Grand Greenhouse (1909) The Japanese governor-general built this greenhouse together with a zoo at the emperor’s residence in 1909. Korean people believe this was done to demote the dignity of the royal palace (Jeon, 2017), turning it into a place of recreation. Thus, Changgyeonggung is one of the best examples to show how people have perceived the Daehan Empire’s imperial legacy related to Japanese colonial rule amongst modern cultural heritage sites.

During Japanese colonial rule: Former National Assembly Building (1937) This symbolic place at the centre of Seoul was also frequently used for the political rallying regarding the war over the period from 1937 to 1940 (Lim, 2017). Due to its symbolic importance and its purpose, it has often been a target of criticism by people who strove for Korean independence at that time (Yoo, 1995). Thus, it showcases how heritage sites related to Japanese colonial rule, especially during World War II, are perceived by Korean people.

After Japanese colonial rule: Former Seoul Supreme Court Building (1945) The Japanese governor-general built this to serve as a tribunal during the Japanese colonial era and after 1945, it was used as the Supreme Court of South Korea [5]. It has a dark history relating to the ruling on people’s execution and in a bid to shed its negative image, Seoul Metropolitan City converted it to an art gallery in 1995. It has now become a popular cultural facility for residents of Seoul. Thus, it is worth reflecting on how this place has been perceived differently by different generations and its story demonstrates how Korean people perceive Japanese administrative governmental buildings.


The following pages explore these sites in more detail and provide an opportunity to reflect on this emotive topic. In particular, colonial heritage is remembered and experienced differently across generations (Youn, 2014). For example, South Koreans who experienced the period of Japanese colonial rule have been shaming Japanese colonial heritage as a source of potential threats that challenges the status and pride of a nation and its citizens, the people of South Korea (ibid). Therefore, cross-generational thoughts can be expressed by leaving your comments in order for us to understand the complex relationship between individuals and their colonial heritage.

© 2021 Minki Sung


[1] Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea. (2006)  Modern Cultural Heritage Status. Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2021).

[2] Cwiertka, K.J. (2010) ‘Dining Out in the Land of Desire: Colonial Seoul and the Korean Culture of Consumption’, in Kendall, L. (ed.) Consuming Korean Tradition in Early and Late Modernity: Commodification, Tourism, and Performance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, pp. 19–38.

[3] Government of the Republic of Korea. Cultural Heritage Protection Act 2018, c. 1. Available at (Accessed: 18 February 2021).

[4] Jeon, H.J. (2017) ‘How about going out on a cold day, Changgyeonggung Palace?’, Seoul&, 23 November. Available at: (Accessed: 5 February 2021).

[5] Korean Association of Architectural History. (2006)  Research into the Conservation and Utilization of Modern Cultural Heritage. Daejeon: Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea.

[6] Lim, I.S. (2017) ‘Leave it behind… The Shell-Only Cultural Heritage?’, JTBC, 26 July. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2021).

[7] Pan, J.H. and Min, H.S. (2009) A Plan to Revitalize Tourism of Seoul’s Modern Cultural Heritage through Storytelling. Seoul: Seoul Development Institute.

[8] Yoo, M.Y. (1995)  Old Seoul National Assembly Building (府民館). Available at: (Accessed: 15 February 2021).

[9] Youn, S.H. (2014) The Impact of the Colonial Architectural Heritage on South Koreans’ National Identity. PhD thesis. University of Surrey. Available at: (Accessed: 12 April 2021).

[10] Yuk, S.H. (2011) A Study on the Education of Imperial Family in the Korea Empire. Korean Studies, 19, pp.609−638.

“The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself”.

Wallace Stevens

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