UNESCO Treasures in Korea

The geography of Korea – a peninsula jutting out from the world’s largest continent – has contributed greatly to the development of uniquely Korean characteristics. The foundation for the country’s culture and arts is the Korean identity: a combination of traits associated with continental and island peoples. Throughout many millennia, Korea has interacted with the predominant continental cultures of Asia despite its peripheral location in the northeast. Remarkably, while accommodating major religions and traditions of other Asian regions, the country has developed a truly distinct culture in many aspects, which some people call the “centrality of the Korean culture.”

Under this topographical influence, the Korean people came to develop a peace-loving yet dynamic character that has created a contemplative yet vibrant, optimistic yet sentimental culture.

World Heritage UNESCO has recognized the unique value and the distinct character of Korean culture by placing a number of Korean treasures on the World Heritage List. In 1995, UNESCO added to its list Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, both in Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province; Haeinsa Temple Janggyeongpanjeon, the Depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks in Gyeongsangnam-do Province; and Jongmyo, the Royal Ancestral Shrine in Seoul.

Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul and Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon were entered on the list in 1997. In 2000, two additional Korean treasures were added to the list: the dolmen sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa; and the Gyeongju Historic Areas, the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.- A.D. 935), where innumerable cultural treasures and historic sites are carefully preserved. In 2007, UNESCO named Korea’s volcanic island Jejudo and its lava tubes a natural property of outstanding beauty which bears testimony to the history of our planet. In 2009, 40 royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty were added to the list. They had been built according to the ancient theory of divination based on topography, known in English by its Chinese name feng shui.

The majestic entrance of Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. The temple was inscribed on the UNESCO

The majestic entrance of Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. The temple was inscribed on the UNESCO

Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto were constructed over a 23-year period beginning in 751 during the Silla Kingdom by Chief Minister Kim Dae-seong (701-774). It is recorded that Kim was reincarnated as the son of a chief minister because he had been the virtuous son of a poor widow in a previous life. He himself became chief minister and resigned in 750 to supervise the construction of Bulguksa to honor the parents of his present life and Seokguram to honor the parents of his previous life. Bulguksa was for public worship and Seokguram for the private worship of the king.
Built on a series of stone terraces, Bulguksa blends into what appears as an organic whole with the rocky terrain of the wooded foothills of Mt.Tohamsan.

The temple houses the Seokgatap (Pagoda of the Historic Buddha) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Many Treasures) as well as Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge), Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge) and Chilbogyo (Bridge of Seven Treasures) – the three staircases are called bridges because symbolically they lead from the secular world to the spiritual one of Buddha. There are many other outstanding treasures within and outside the temple grounds, including gilt bronze Buddha statues.

Main Buddha of Seokguram Grotto at the Bulguksa Temple complex

Main Buddha of Seokguram Grotto at the Bulguksa Temple complex

Dominating the courtyard of the Daeungjeon (Main Hall) are two of Korea’s most beautiful pagodas. The 8.3-meter-high Seokgatap and the 10.5-meter-high Dabotap were both built around 756. Seokgatap is characterized by masculine simplicity and princely dignity and represents spiritual ascent via the teachings of Sakyamuni whereas the highly decorative Dabotap is more feminine and symbolizes the complexity of the world.

Seokguram Grotto has undergone renovation several times over the years. It is an artificially created stone cavern featuring a large seated Buddha surrounded by 38 Bodhisattvas. The grotto, like the structures in the vicinity of Bulguksa, is made from granite.
Seokguram comprises a rectangular antechamber and a round interior chamber with a domed ceiling connected by a passageway. Chiseled out of a single block of granite, the 3.5-meter-high main Buddha is seated cross-legged on a lotus throne facing the east, with eyes closed in quiet meditation, and a serene, all-knowing expression on its face. Seokguram represents a combination of Silla’s knowledge of architecture, math, geometry, physics, religion and art into an organic whole and is one of Korea’s greatest Buddhist masterpieces.

Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, the Depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks

Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, the Depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks

Janggyeong Panjeon, two storage halls at Haeinsa Temple, are the repositories for the Tripitaka Koreana, consisting of some 81,258 wood printing blocks, the Goryeo Dynasty version of the Buddhist canon. With more than 52 million Chinese characters precisely rendered, it is the oldest and most comprehensive Buddhist canon existing in the world today.

Jongmyo, the Royal Ancestral Shrine, was dedicated in 1395, three years after the Joseon Dynasty was established. It enshrines the spirit tablets of its kings and queens. The elaborate memorial rites and the music, which accompanies them called Jongmyojeryeak, were designated as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Ceremonial reenactments of the Joseon ancestral memorial rites are conducted on the first Sunday of every May at Jongmyo.

Changdeokgung Palace was first built in 1405 and was reconstructed after being burnt down in 1592 during the Japanese invasion. The palace itself is a masterful work but particularly noteworthy is the back garden (Huwon), also called the Secret garden (Biwon), which is widely acclaimed for its beautifully landscaped and creative gardens. The garden comprises almost three-quarters of the 405,636 m2 palace grounds and is tastefully laid out with all the essential elements of a Korean traditional garden: picturesque pavilions and halls, lotus ponds, uniquely shaped rocks, stone bridges, stairways, water troughs and springs scattered among dense woods.


1. Changdeokgung Palace – Located in Jongno-gu, Seoul, the palace was constructed during the Joseon period.
2. Dolmen – Representative type of tomb from the Bronze Age in Korea
3. Hwaseong Fortress – A unique example incorporating features of modern military architecture from both the East and the West.
4. Silla Kingdom tombs in Gyeongju – These are royal tombs from the Silla Kingdom within the Gyeongju Historic Areas.
5. Jongmyo Shrine – Confucian royal shrine that houses tablets of deceased kings and queens of Joseon.

Hwaseong Fortress was constructed over 34 months in Suwon, south of Seoul, in 1796. The fortress incorporated the very latest construction technology, theories of military defense and aesthetic principles to create the most advanced military stronghold Korea had ever known. It stretched over undulating terrain around an urban center and included four major and several minor gates, command posts, observation towers, battlements, guard posts and bunkers. Most of the 5,743 meter exterior fortress wall still remains.

The Gyeongju Historic Areas and dolmen sites in the counties of Gochang, Jeollabuk-do; Hwasun, Jeollanam-do; and Ganghwa, Incheon, were also added to the list in 2000. Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom for a thousand years and the area is called a “Museum Without Walls” because of the wealth of historical properties there. Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes together comprise three sites that make up 18,846 hectares. They are Geomunoreum, regarded as the finest lava tube cave system anywhere, with its multicolored carbonate ceilings and floors and dark-colored lava walls; the dramatic fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong crater rising out of the ocean; and Hallasan, South Korea’s highest mountain, with its waterfalls, multi-shaped rock formations and small crater lake. These sites of outstanding aesthetic beauty also bear testimony to the history of the planet, its features and the processes which formed our world.


1. Hahoe Village – the oldest historic clan village in Korea, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010.
2-3. Jejudo Island with its many volcanic features has greatly improved understanding of global volcanism and ecosystems. The beautiful scenery of Mt. Hallasan, biodiversity, and geographical features are of outstanding universal value as world natural heritage.  
4. Joseon Dynasty’s Royal Tombs – Gyeongneung (King Heonjong)

The Joseon Dynasty’s Royal Tombs were built adhering to the principles of Confucianism, the ruling ideology of the times, and “pungsu,” the Korean version of geographic divination known as feng shui in China. They boast a kind of beauty that cannot easily be found in the graves of other countries. The tombs reflect the perspectives on nature and the universe during the Joseon period with their spatial layout, architectural design and usage, and the scale of stone objects. The cultural value of the tombs can further be seen in the maintenance of the tradition of holding ancestral rites throughout the long history of the Joseon Dynasty down to the present.

In July 2010, the World Heritage Commission in its 34th general meeting in Brasilia, Brazil, approved the listing of Hahoe and Yangdong Villages, both located in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, as World Heritage sites for their unique cultural values. They were recognized for the preservation of the Confucian-oriented, clan-centered Joseon era civilian life.

Memory of the World Register In 1997, UNESCO initiated a Memory of the World Register for the purpose of preserving and disseminating the documentary heritage of the world that is in danger of being lost forever. Korean additions to this registry include Hunminjeongeum (Proper Phonetics to Instruct the People), Joseonwangjosillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), Buljo Jikjisimcheyojeol (Selected Sermons of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters), Seungjeongwon Ilgi (Diaries of the Royal Secretariat), the printing woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana and miscellaneous Buddhist scriptures, the Uigwe (Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty), and Donguibogam, the Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine.

Hunminjeongeum was a primer for teaching Hangeul, the Korean alphabet created by the Joseon Dynasty’s fourth ruler, King Sejong the Great (r. 1418-1450). The new alphabet was promulgated in 1446.
Joseonwangjosillok resulted from the tradition of preparing a historic record of each reign. It began in 1413 with the Annals of King Taejo, the founder and first king of Joseon, and continued through the end of the dynasty in 1910. The Annals were drafted by historians in the Office for Annals Compilation (Chunchugwan), and to ensure preservation, copies were stored in special repositories situated in different parts of the country.

Buljo Jikjisimcheyojeol, compiled in 1372 by the monk Baegun (1298-1374), contains the essentials of Seon (Zen) Buddhism. The key words of the title, “Jikjisimche” were taken from a famous phrase about attaining enlightenment through the practice of Seon. A colophon on the last page of the book states that it was printed with movable metal type at Heungdeoksa Temple in 1377, about eighty years before the Gutenberg Bible was printed in Germany, making it the world’s oldest book printed with movable metal type.

Hunminjeongeum(left): Published in 1446, the 28th year of King, Buljo Jikjisimcheyojeol: Printed in 1377, this is the world’s oldest book

Hunminjeongeum(left): Published in 1446, the 28th year of King, Buljo Jikjisimcheyojeol: Printed in 1377, this is the world’s oldest book

The Seungjeongwon, the Royal Secretariat of the Joseon Dynasty, was responsible for keeping the Seungjeongwon Ilgi, a detailed record of the daily events and official schedule of the court, from Joseon Dynasty’s first king, Taejo (r. 1392-1398), to the 27th and last, Sunjong (r. 1907-1910). However, currently only 3,243 volumes exist. Recorded in the Seungjeongwon Ilgi is the largest amount of authentic historic information and state secrets of the Joseon Dynasty. It served as the primary source for the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, thus its historic value is even greater than the Annals itself.

Uigwe - The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty

Uigwe – The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty

The Goryeo Daejanggyeong (Goryeo Dynasty Tripitaka), known as the “Tripitaka Koreana” to modern scholars, is a collection of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures). Carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century, under commission by the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), it is currently stored at Haeinsa Temple in Gyeongsangnam-do Province.

A unique form of documentary heritage, the Uigwe is a collection of Royal Protocols for the 500-year-long Joseon Dynasty. A comprehensive and systematic collection of writings and paintings, it provides a detailed account of the important ceremonies and rites of the Joseon court. Its particular style of documentary heritage cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Donguibogam: This is the greatest-ever oriental medical treatise in Korea. Written by Heo Jun (1546?~1615), this landmark medical book was completed in 1610. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in July 2009.

Donguibogam: This is the greatest-ever oriental medical treatise in Korea. Written by Heo Jun (1546?~1615), this landmark medical book was completed in 1610. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in July 2009.

Donguibogam (The Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine) is an encyclopedia of medical knowledge and treatment techniques compiled and edited by Heo Jun (1539-1615) in the early 17th century, with the collective support of medical experts and literati, according to instructions from the royal court. The work shows the evolution of medicine in East Asia and beyond. In terms of health care system, it developed the ideals of preventive medicine and public health care by the state, which were virtually unprecedented ideas.
Ilseongnok is a chronicle of each king’s activities and every aspect of state administration in the late Joseon period. Compiled in the form of a daily journal, it covers all state affairs from 1760 (36th year of the reign of King Yeongjo of Joseon) to 1910 (4th year of the reign of Emperor Sunjong of the Great Han Empire).
The May 18 The Gwangju Democratic Movement’ refers to the struggle for democratization waged by the inhabitants of Gwangju against the military dictatorship between May 18 and May 27, 1980. The movement is said to have had a significant influence on democratization movements in East Asia in the ensuing period. Records concerning the movement, including documents, photos and films, and compensation for the victims, are kept by the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the National Archives of Korea, the ROK Army Headquarters, the National Assembly Library, and the United States government.


This information is copied from Korea.net website (http://www.korea.net/AboutKorea/Culture-and-the-Arts/UNESCO-Treasures-in-Korea)

Categories: 2014

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