Giwa-jibs, tile-roofed houses, are prominent in Jeonju Hanok Village. (Kenneth Rhee/ULI)

SEOUL—Construction in Jeonju Hanok Village in the city of Jeonju, located about 200 kilometres (124 mi) south of Seoul, began around 1910. After the village began growing in affluence during the 1930s, it became known for its abundance of courtyard hanoks (tile-roofed houses also known as giwa-jibs)—a home type involving significantly more expensive construction methods than were normal at the time, when houses usually had roofs consisting of rice straw coverings.

To protect this architectural heritage, authorities designated the neighbourhood a historic preservation area in 1978. But with authorities having little understanding of how to manage such an asset in the context of a thriving residential community, the designation served only to trigger a prolonged period of decline that lasted nearly three decades.

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Because homeowners were prohibited from demolishing or significantly altering the appearance of their homes, they had little incentive to maintain or restore them. As a result, the once-wealthy enclave was gradually eclipsed by newer, more modern communities boasting conveniences such as indoor kitchens and toilets, together with newfangled appliances including heating and air conditioning. Established residents voted with their feet and were gradually replaced by artists and artisans, for whom the area’s ambience and low rents held potent appeal.

Real regeneration of the neighbourhood started in earnest during the late 1990s, led by the city government. Aiming to leverage the neighbourhood’s iconic status as a means of landing the city a coveted nomination to host matches for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, local authorities launched an ambitious plan to revitalise the Hanok Village area. This quickly put a stop to a spate of uncontrolled redevelopment that had begun in 1996, after the city government lifted many ­conservation-driven regulations in response to homeowner complaints.

By this time, authorities were aware that a heritage preservation policy based on telling residents what not to do with their homes was doomed to fail. They therefore adopted a more proactive approach via a range of government-led initiatives. The city purchased old homes from those willing to sell and restored them in the traditional style. And the city provided subsidies to homeowners to finance renovations or build new hanok-style homes.

Government policies were not targeted only at preserving and converting hanok residences. New traditional-style structures were created to provide museums and civic facilities; also, old streets were repaired and new ones built to improve access and appearance. Finally, as renovation work proceeded, officials recognised that while the city had a wide range of historic and cultural heritage elements such as paper making and cuisine, it lacked space to exhibit and cultivate the many other elements of its heritage, such as opera and crafts. The government created new facilities, such as exhibition places for kimchi, wine, opera, and literature, to cater to this aspect of the neighbourhood’s history.

The 30-hectare (75 acre) village draws more than 11 million visitors a year. (JEONJU POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE)

Restoration Investment

Between 2000 and 2017, some KRW 148.9 billion (US$130 million) in public funding was invested, of which 29 per cent came from the national government and the remainder from city and provincial governments.

The key components of the government investment were as follows:

  • Traditional culture, street landscape, and infrastructure improvement: KRW 68 billion (US$60 million)—46 per cent of the total.
  • Public cultural facilities construction: KRW 49 billion (US$43 million)—33 per cent.
  • Subsidies for privately owned hanok repairs and construction: KRW 11 billion (US$9.6 million)—7 per cent.
  • Subsidies for the operation of cultural facilities: KRW 20 billion (US$1.8 million)—13 per cent.
  • Planning: KRW 600 million (US$525,000)—0.4 per cent.

Initial work carried out from 2000 to 2002 involved a focus on the most pressing issues, including the following:

  • Improving the main street, Taejo Road, which runs east–west through the middle of Hanok Village;
  • Building key cultural facilities such as museums for traditional culture and arts; and
  • Providing subsidies for repairs and new construction of hanok homes.

In subsequent years, the government continued to invest heavily in improvements to other streets, namely the north–south Eunhaeng Road, and also to build more museums and exhibition centres.

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From 2002, the government began providing financial support to individual hanok homeowners, with grants of up to KRW 50 million for repairs and up to KRW 100 million for new hanok construction. Financial subsidies from the city government to owners of hanoks further enhanced the uniformity of the architectural style. At the same time, all new building and repair work was subject to review by the local Hanok Review Committee, composed of representatives from the government and Hanok experts, to ensure that restoration conformed with guidelines for style and quality.

Successes

Ironically, the recession that followed the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 provided a boost for Jeonju’s hanok regeneration campaign because unemployment and bankruptcies drove a large number of cut-price homes to market. These properties were used to build or locate many of the community’s planned cultural facilities, all built in the traditional hanok style. The approaching opening of the FIFA World Cup in 2002 also provided a strong incentive to the government to accelerate regeneration efforts.

Today, Hanok Village is the city’s most popular area for tourists, who use it as a base for travelling within the province and sometimes across southwest Korea. In addition to a large cluster of well-preserved traditional homes and streetscapes, the village offers various ways to experience traditional Korean culture. Museums and exhibition centres provide opportunities to experience increasingly forgotten crafts like traditional paper making and wine making. And the area has evolved as a centre for the study of a variety of traditional pursuits ranging from Confucian philosophy to traditional Korean folk music to home cooking using local produce. On a typical day, several large or small cultural and musical events are also offered.

The daily operation of the area is handled by a department within the city’s tourism bureau whose work is focused exclusively on the Hanok Village area. Less obvious but also essential for the village’s long-term success has been active participation from various civic groups interested in preserving and promoting various elements of the area’s cultural heritage such as architecture, traditional opera, ceramics, paper making, calligraphy, literature, and cuisine.

Hanok Village is further enriched by businesses that organise events such as traditional opera performances, offer training programs on how to make traditional paper or brew rice wine, or serve Korean dishes in locally made earthenware.

A typical homestay popular with foreigners. (Kenneth Rhee/ULI)

Challenges

As is often the case, the very success of Hanok Village has imperilled its authenticity as an influx of tourists threatens to dilute the area’s uniqueness and cultural value. Commercialisation and gentrification are parallel threats. What was once primarily a residential neighbourhood today draws an annual tourist flow that has risen from 1 million in 2006 to over 11 million in 2017.

The following are among the threats:

  • Declining residential population. Rising home prices and increasing commercialisation have prompted many residents to relocate. As of the end of 2017, the number of households stood at 613, a drop of about 5 per cent from the previous year and a 42 per cent decline since 2008. Artists and craftspeople also have started leaving the area for nearby neighbourhoods such as Seohak-dong, taking advantage of lower housing costs and a more relaxed environment.
  • Over-commercialisation and dilution of cultural authenticity. Increasing numbers of tourists and tourism-driven business activities have significantly changed the types of businesses operating in the area. In the early years, restaurants and tea houses served traditional local cuisine and drinks. Today, new outlets typically serve fast food (not necessarily of traditional Korean origin) and rent motorised bikes to tourists. Also, just outside Hanok Village, a number of recently constructed high-rise buildings (generally four to six storeys) in Western architectural style dwarf adjacent, mostly single-storey hanoks. These buildings primarily cater to tourists and are generally used for retail, entertainment, and food and beverage purposes—offerings incongruent with the more placid lifestyle of Hanok Village.
  • Inauthentic hanok homes. With hanok homes increasingly being used by businesses, new homebuilding and renovations—even if done in the hanok style—are adhering less and less to traditional styles and materials. For example, instead of using clay tiles for the roof—a key part of hanok identity—metal sheets mimicking clay roof tiles are often used now. Also, to increase visibility and attract passing tourists, business owners have significantly lowered fences and used nontraditional materials.

The success of Jeonju Hanok Village is a result of a variety of factors:

  • Many residents continued to value traditional Korean architectural style even during the depths of the Japanese occupation during the first half of the 20th century. This was the case despite a proliferation of increasingly common Japanese and Western architectural styles.
  • Local authorities managed to protect the neighbourhood from the threat of demolition to make room for high-rise apartments and commercial buildings during the city’s rapid urbanisation that began in the late 1970s.
  • Motivated by a major sporting event, local government and civic leaders were able to recognise the potential of the area and to preserve and showcase its cultural heritage. It helped that some leaders were themselves practitioners of traditional arts such as calligraphy and poetry, and they appreciated traditional Korean architecture.
  • There was a concerted effort on the national, provincial, and city levels, as well as by civic groups, to improve both tangible and intangible aspects of the area.

As noted, Jeonju’s challenges today flow largely from its recent successes, which are probably good problems to have. In particular, however, experience suggests that focusing on common measures of achievement such as visitor numbers and tourist spending is a mistake that can lead to the dilution of authenticity. Ongoing vigilance is therefore key. In the long run, Jeonju’s preservation as a centre for Korean cultural heritage is likely to depend on the commitment of local officials to deal effectively with the impacts of gentrification and commercialisation. UL