Min-sun Song
Head of the Research Division of ICH, National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage

Since Korea has undergone the fierce contemporary history through the Japanese colonial era and the Korean War, the Korean government enacted the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in 1962 for safeguarding and transmitting Korean cultural heritage. In this act, the term intangible cultural heritage (ICH) was officially coined as a legal concept, and provisions were prepared to designate and safeguard ICH at the national level. Thus, the Korean legal system for safeguarding ICH was established forty years before the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003).

In May 1962, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) of Korea organized the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee (ICHC) to set up the details for designating Important Intangible Cultural Heritage inventories. Thus, CHA legislated provisions to (i) collect ICH and folklore materials from every province of Korea, (ii) research designation systems and safeguarding examples of cultural heritage overseas, and (iii) report the list of ICH to be designated in every province. In addition, sectional experts were appointed to conduct a basic ICH survey and to inventory each element. Accordingly, the first research regarding the conditions of ICH in Korea had begun by July 1962. The Korean government selected the recommended elements to be designated and safeguarded, and notified local governments of the elements so that complementary documents could be received. Based on the research results, the ICHC decided to designate seven elements, including the Royal Ancestral Rites Music of the Jongmyo Shrine, as Important ICH of Korea. In December 1964, the first batch of designated Important ICH of Korea was reported in the official gazette of the Korean government.

In 1970, the Cultural Heritage Protection Act was revised to promote the designation of local cultural heritage certificated by ordinances of local governments. Designations of local ICH thereafter contributed to ICH safeguarding based on the distinct characteristics of the area. Thus, after the first designation of Haenyeo Norae (Songs of female divers) in Jeju Island in August 1971, local governments began to designate local ICH.

Currently, there are 114 elements (126 including subdivision elements) nationally designated as Important ICH while there are 414 elements locally designated as Important ICH. The table below indicates the sectional ICH designated by national or local governments.

The Procedure of Inventorying Intangible Cultural Heritage

Important ICH of Korea formulates the foundation of transmission through the methods of designating elements and certifying skill holders; the procedures of each method are similar. The procedure of designation begins with the authority of the CHA administrator and the recommendation of local governments or non-governmental organizations. The relevant experts determine the validity of the element and the value of its identification, and then they decide whether there is a need for a field study on the element. Sometimes, nationwide investigations into the present condition of ICH and additional academic research studies are conducted to ensure representativeness of the element. Based on the investigation, research, and study results, the ICHC determines the necessity for a field study for the recommended element. Afterward, more than two field studies are conducted by related experts and members of the ICHC. Since the ICHC ensured the element’s representativeness after extensive investigation, CHA reports the designation notice in the Korean government’s official gazette and gathers public opinion for thirty days. Thereafter, the ICHC carries out the deliberation of national designation for the consented element. Once the designation of the element is approved by the ICHC, CHA finally reports the designated element in the official gazette, and notifies the situation to the local governments concerned. Hereby, the national designated element of ICH is born.

The graph on the following page demonstrates the development of national designated ICH by year, it can be seen that most elements were designated during periods of political, social, and economic change. Since the first Important ICH was designated in 1964, 79 percent of the elements were designated within the first twenty-five years. It is assumed that ICH designation is a measure to secure and maintain traditional Korean cultures while coping with sudden changes.

Designated ICH elements are safeguarded by the means of support for transmission activities and documentation (video and publication), and periodic monitoring. Especially, the documentation of Important ICH has been accomplished by 97 percent, and the Guidebook for the Documentation of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2010) has been published to standardize the documentation measures.

The New Beginning of Inventorying Intangible Cultural Heritage

The Korean government has recognized the UNESCO 2003 Convention as an opportunity to re-examine ICH transmitting and safeguarding systems based on the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. Thus, new legislation for ICH safeguarding is in progress to apply the Convention domestically; a public hearing has been held to garner new opinions of the skill holders, transmitters, and communities concerned. Besides the inventory of Important ICH and Local ICH, a new national ICH inventory is being prepared to ensure the visibility and viability of safeguarding and transmission. This new inventory is an online ICH encyclopedia called ICHPEDIA (in Korean) and managed by collective intelligence.

The Republic of Korea has conducted comprehensive ICH research. Two examples of this research are the 1964 research on the present condition of ICH in Korea for the designation of Important ICH and the 1969 Korean folklore research. These research projects became the academic and institutional foundation for safeguarding and transmitting ICH. A number of researchers from the research division of ICH in the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage (NRICH) have participated in these projects as executive researchers. In accordance with experience and results of this research, the NRICH is undertaking a project called the Research of ICH Basic Resources in Korea. This project will be aimed at the ICH that is currently safeguarded and transmitted in Korea, and the results will be the academic foundation for making a national ICH inventory.