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Shadow Behind the Light: UNESCO World Heritage
Kim DaHyun  |  byejen@korea.ac.kr
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승인 2015.09.03  20:06:12
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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List evoked mixed emotions for the South Korean public on July 5, 2015. Many people around the nation were enthused and hyped that the Baekje Historic Areas were included in the list registered at Number 12, but just as many were addened and worried that 23 Meiji period (1868-1912) sites in Japan made the list also.

 
But first, what is the big deal with the UNESCO World Heritage List? For those unfamiliar with the list, here is a brief explanation. A “World Heritage” is “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration,” according to UNESCO.
 
   
▲ Baekje Historic Areas. Provided by travelandleisure.com.
Historical venues as unique and diverse as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up the World Heritage of UNESCO. Through World Heritage, UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to all humanity. Once included in the prestigious list, State Parties are under an obligation to establish management plans and set up reporting systems on the state of conservation of their World Heritage sites, to encourage participation of the local population in the preservation cultural and natural heritage, and to promote international cooperation in the conservation of their world's cultural and natural heritage.
 
   
▲ Hashima Island. Provided by gongmini.com.
However, the list does not simply come with a lot of obligations; it also comes with an abundance of lucrative incentives and benefits. Such benefits and incentives include receiving technical assistance and professional training so that the State Party may safeguard World Heritage properties, receiving emergency assistance for World Heritage sites in immediate danger or risk, and receiving support for States Parties' public awareness-building activities for World Heritage conservation. Additional benefits would include a major boost in the local tourism industry and worldwide recognition and renown which would positively affect a country’s global reputation.
 
The Baekje Historic Areas could not have made it on the list without carrying tremendous historic and cultural value for the global society. A total of eight areas in South Korea that used to be part of the ancient kingdom of Baekje have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The sites consist of locations in Iksan in North Jeolla, and Gongju and Buyeo in South Chungcheong. They include royal palaces and fortresses, tombs, temple sites, and other archaeological sites of historic value and distinction.
 
The historic value of the Baekje Historic Areas cannot dare be approximated. However, to briefly explain, the areas well deserve the title of World Heritage as they represent the apex of cultural development in the late periods of Baekje Dynasty achieved through active international exchange and trade. Acknowledgement of such importance of the Areas led to its honorable inscription as the 12th World Heritage of Korea.
 
Baekje Historic Areas became a candidate for nomination for inscription on the World Heritage List in January, 2010. “All of the artifacts that are part of the Baekje Historic Areas were registered as historic artifacts well before the nominations and therefore were in a state of outstanding preservation. The Areas were also frequently and continuously utilized and promoted in academic conferences and festivals,” said specialist Shin You-jin of Baekje Historic Areas Conservation and Management Foundation. All of these factors fortified the cultural and historic value of the Baekje Historic Areas which lead up to their inscription in the famed list.
 
   
▲ Baekje Historic Areas. Provided by flickr.com.
“The inscription of the Baekje Historic Areas as World Heritage proves that the contribution of Baekje to the ancient civilization of East Asia has been acknowledged in the history of mankind. It also stands as proof that the Baekje Historic Area is a heritage that all of mankind, not just Korea, should work to conserve,” Shin said. This will bring about more interest of the general society and the government which will positively affect the preservation and maintenance of the historical site.
 
The Baekje Historic Areas consist of sites from Korea’s ancient predecessor, Baekje. There is plenty of sound archaeological evidence present regarding Baekje, even in ancient documentations of China and Japan. Therefore, compared to other candidates of UNESCO World Heritage, there was relatively little to no objection or competition.
 
   
▲ Baekje Historic Areas. Provided by travelworldheritage.com.
In stark contrast, the recommendation by International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) regarding the registration of 23 sites of “Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution,” built in the late 19th to early 20th centuries stirred up quite an international controversy. Even after the sites were credited with contributing to Japan’s rapid industrialization and adaption of Western technologies to its needs, according to Tokyo’s Cultural Affairs Agency, the controversy did not quiet down.
 
Why such a difference in reaction? This was because the nomination scandalously made no mention of the history of the thousands of Asian slave laborers at this site. Such silence about the historical baggage these global landmarks come with undermines UNESCO’s fundamental goals. The selective account of its history is characteristic of the current Abe administration’s broader policy of recovering Japanese pride of its past.
 
In the end, Japan’s hotly contested bid for UNESCO recognition of 23 early industrial sites was granted after Japan acknowledged that they were the sites of forced labor. However, it appears that Japan may be trying to go back on its own words. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was quoted saying that the delegation’s statement “does not acknowledge that there was forced labor” in the facilities. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga seemed to be on the same page during a news conference, saying that while Koreans were forced to work at the sites, they were not “forced laborers.”
 
Japan’s initial acknowledgement was something of a breakthrough since it has rarely in the past assumed such an apologetic stance over a Second World War matter with South Korea. On the other hand, South Koreans and responsible global citizens alike should work to make sure that Japan maintains such a position.
 
As made clear before, an inscription as World Heritage does not only mean economic benefits and a boost in the country’s international image. It also helps tremendously in preserving a national as well as international historic treasure. Thus, as responsible people of the international society, Koreans and non-Koreans alike should try to facilitate the process of inscription for national treasures that deserve and need acknowledgement as a World Heritage, while at the same time keeping a watchful eye over historical facts.
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