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Korea's Hanok: Houses with Seoul
Diplomatic Pouch / October 30, 2008

By Larry Luxner

James R. Lilley remembers the momentous occasion like it was yesterday.

Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident who had been exiled to the United States for his opposition to South Korea's military regime, returned to his homeland in 1984 and was promptly put under house arrest.

"When democracy came to Korea in the summer of 1987, they released him," recalled Lilley, an 80-year-old retired diplomat who was U.S. ambassador in Seoul from 1986 to 1989. "We had invited Kim to come to our July 4th celebration. He walked up the long stairs very slowly to where we were, and we greeted him. A lot of my Korean friends from the military and government were present, and there was no visible sign of tension. It was one of Kim's first public appearances after being released, and we were very glad to be part of it."

Lilley later became U.S. ambassador to China, and Kim went on to become president of Korea and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. And the ambassador's residence where the two men met, known as Habib House, still stands as a shining example of Korea's highly prized hanok architecture.

On Oct. 23, Lilley and 200 other guests attended the gala opening of "Stepping into Hanok for the New Millennium"  the first overseas exhibition of hanok architecture co-sponsored by the National Trust of Korea and the Korean Embassy in Washington. The exhibit has already visited Los Angeles and New York, and will remain at the KORUS House along Massachusetts Avenue until Nov. 4.

The term hanok refers to a building with traditional Korean wood-frame construction. Depending on the social status of the owners, these houses were made with tiled, thatched or wooden roofs. They also have spacious courtyards and stone foundations, and are built by skilled craftsmen using refined techniques.

According to the exhibit's sponsors, the 14 hanok houses depicted in this traveling show "affirm that traditional structures can survive in a dynamic modern city while maintaining its classic dignity and integrity ... Like flowers in a desolate concrete jungle, they are beacons of light guiding our city and our citizens into the future of quality residential housing."

Yi Song-mi is professor of art history at the Academy of Korean Studies and curator of the exhibit. She told Diplomatic Pouch that Seoul whose 20 million inhabitants make it the world's second-largest metropolis boasts at least 10,000 hanok houses that were built continuously from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) to the present.

But in recent years as the city grew, hanok houses were largely forgotten and left to languish.

"In modern Korea, people live mostly in Western-syle apartment houses. They're like matchboxes and very indistinct," Yi explained. However, a resurgence of interest in the hanok style has led to efforts to preserve these unique dwellings.

"In olden days, these houses did not have indoor plumbing or centralized heating. Many of them were demolished to make way for new apartment buildings. Then the city government decided it was about time that we preserve these houses."

Yi said the municipality offered tax breaks to residents who kept and renovated hanok houses, and additional incentives if they opened their house to tourists.

"Some of them have been renovated into dentists' offices, restaurants or fashionable shops," she said. "In some areas, these places are now tourist attractions. Foreigners may own these houses, but Koreans are also very much interested in them."

The oldest house in the current hanok exhibit is the Yon Posun Residence, which dates from 1870. After liberation in 1945, the house served as headquarters for the Democratic Party of Korea, and is now owned by the National Trust of Korea. Most of the others in the exhibit are from the 1930s, with the newest one being the U.S. ambassador's house, which was built in 1974.

Habib House, named after statesman Philip Habib a former U.S. envoy to Korea ran contrary to State Department tradition, which usually calls for U.S. ambassadors' residences to be built in American style.

"It took some convincing in Washington to agree to this unusual project, but Habib prevailed," said Alexander Vershbow, who retired from the Foreign Service in September as U.S. ambassador in Korea, and who spoke at the opening night ceremonies.

"The new house took three years to build and Ambassador Habib never lived in it himself, but after he passed away the house was named after him as a tribute to his sensitivity to the preservation of the local culture," said Vershbow. "Even today, more than 35 years after the roof beams went up complete with a Buddhist monk's blessing the minute you set foot inside the door, you know that this house is the result of a marriage made in heaven. It feels both Korean and American."

Professor Yi said the point of the exhibit is to educate people about these historic houses and, ultimately, to encourage more Koreans to live in them, despite the high cost of restoring and maintaining these treasures.

"Depending on the area and the condition, these houses are by square footage much more expensive than modern apartment buildings." Asked if she herself lived in a hanok, Yi smiled. "I wish I did," she said with a sigh.

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