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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Times on June 25)

All Headlines 09:33 June 25, 2011

'Arirang' ? Korean heritage
: Time to do justice to cultural assets

China’s designation of a regional variation of “Arirang,” a famous traditional Korean folk song, as its cultural heritage is raising the question of what South Korea has done to publicize its own cultural assets worldwide. The Chinese move should serve as a wakeup call for Koreans to make more efforts to gain better international recognition of their own heritage.

China has recently listed the version of Arirang sung by ethnic Koreans in Yanbian, Jilin Province, as a national intangible cultural heritage along with pansori, a genre of traditional Korean music, and the 12-string traditional instrument gayageum. The listing could be seen as the Asian neighbor’s efforts to better preserve the cultural heritages of the Korean-Chinese.

Some South Koreans have cast a suspicious eye on the Chinese move. They express concerns that the listing may be part of Beijing’s controversial “Northeast Project” that claims the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom was a vassal state of a Chinese dynasty. China may also seek to list Arirang as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The possible UNESCO listing might hurt the national pride of Korea. It would be somewhat humiliating for Korea to lag behind China in including Arirang in the UNESCO list. On Thursday, Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Choung Byoung-gug disclosed a plan to push for collecting the entire regional variations of Arirang and having them listed as UNESCO’s heritage next year.

As Choung noted, South Koreans feel the Chinese move is a bit absurd. However, it would be irrational for the nation to lodge a protest with the Chinese authorities over the issue. It would be better for the nation to get UNESCO’s recognition for Arirang before China does.

What the nation should do now is to review its policy regarding the designation and management of Arirang and other cultural heritages. Korea has never thought about Arirang as one of the nation’s intangible cultural assets because the regulations do not recognize the folk song as a national heritage.

It is really absurd that Arirang cannot currently be listed as a national cultural asset in Korea only because everyone can sing and share the song. The regulations are problematic as they only recognize items in which only a few people, or some human cultural properties, specialize.

For this reason, Jeongseon Arirang, a variation of the folk song widely sung in the mountainous county in Gangwon Province, is only listed as a provincial cultural heritage. It seems that the nation has underestimated the value of the heritage, which has long represented Koreans’ emotions and way of life.

Thus, the government should revise the regulations to allow cultural items such as Arirang to be classified as national intangible cultural assets, paving the way for them to be listed as a UNESCO heritage. We hope the Chinese anecdote will provide an opportunity for Korea to do justice to its own reputable heritage.

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