Hope for Korea’s Surviving Colonial Architecture


Once during an afternoon trip to Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, I found myself photographing a small parking garage. When an older South Korean man came to get his motorbike, he casually asked my friend and me what we were doing there.

I told him I liked old architecture and, in making small talk, we asked him how old he thought the building was.

“Twenty years? Thirty years? I don’t know, I just came to park here.” He then sped off, oblivious to the fact that he had been standing in a former warehouse from nearly a century ago.


A surviving colonial-era building in Gunsan (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
A surviving colonial-era building in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)

That decaying wooden-framed, clay-walled building, an accidental survivor from the Japanese occupation, is presently worth absolutely nothing to the general public save for its use as a parking garage. This is a tragedy – not just for the warehouse-cum-parking garage, which admittedly is not of significant historical value, but for South Korea’s dwindling stock of colonial-era architecture as a whole, which has something to add to the cultural and social fabric of this-post colonial nation.

A wooden colonial-era warehouse is now used as a parking garage. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
A wooden colonial-era warehouse in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, now functions as a parking garage. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)

At the turn of the twentieth century, Western architecture had just started to penetrate the former hermit kingdom. This initially came in the form of legations, hotels, missionary homes, and port facilities, but it was also introduced through the Japanese, who developed a penchant for imitating Western designs.

By the 1940s, European red-brick homes, Renaissance-inspired government centers, flowery Gothic churches, American styled schools, gabled warehouses and modern Japanese wooden buildings had come to dominate Korea’s major urban cityscapes.


Seoul, November 1945 (Credit: Don O'Brien)
Seoul, November 1945 (Credit: Don O’Brien/flickr)

Even designs typically used in Joseon architecture, like those with tile roofs and stone slab foundations, took on new shapes as they were adapted for city life and built in grid form in some neighborhoods, creating a melting pot of traditional and foreign architecture that Korea had never seen before.

The Korean War, frequent city fires, and industrialization have since wreaked havoc on Korea’s cityscapes, destroying hundreds of thousands of old buildings that the country would never see again. This includes the traditional hanok, which, despite being a celebrated architectural design, has had more than 700,000 of its kind destroyed in Seoul alone since the 1970s.

Trickier still is to argue for the conservation of old Western-Japanese buildings when the structures themselves carry so much baggage and have often been rejected as foreign impositions. For some people, early non-Korean modern architecture became a symbol of Japanese imperialism. For instance, socialist writer Cho Myeong-hui once characterized a piece of Japanese architecture as something disdainfully overlooking its chogajip neighbors in his 1927 narrative, Nakdong River.

The rejection and politicization of colonial architecture in South Korea is epitomized by the dismantling of the Government-General building in 1996. The former seat of colonial rule was publicly (and controversially) demolished to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace.


The office of the Government General during Japanese rule, later turned into the National Museum of Korea. It was razed in 1996 to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul. (Source: Namu Wiki)
The office of the Government General during Japanese rule. After independence, it hosted government ministries and the National Museum of Korea before being demolished in 1996 to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace. (Source: Namuwiki)

Other more recent casualties of the post-colonial demolition wave include a former tax building north of Deoksugung in Seoul, a colonial Japanese villa near the hot spring area of Oncheonjang in Busan, the Japanese styled Deokhwan Gwaneum-sa temple in Jinhae, and the mid-century Bethel Church in Masan. A former Army War College building in Jinhae dating to the colonial period is also presently slated for demolition.


A colonial-era Japanese villa in Busan, now demolished (Source: Nate Kornegay)
A colonial-era Japanese villa in Busan (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
The former War College in Jinhae is slated for demolition. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
The former Army War College in Jinhae is slated for demolition. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)

The case of the old Seoul City Hall building best illustrates officialdom’s cavalier attitude toward colonial-era architecture. The city of Seoul planned for a new city hall building since 2006 and announced in 2008 that the demolition would commence. The city argued that the old building, which dates to 1926, had no value as a cultural heritage site and that its age made it a safety hazard. Pledging to use all of its legal resources to complete the demolition, the city was, however, forced to keep the front half of the old hall and construct the new building behind it.


The new Seoul City Hall looms over what remains of the colonial-era structure. (Credit: Choi Seung-Shik/Korea Joongang Daily)
The new Seoul City Hall looms over what remains of the colonial-era structure. (Credit: Choi Seung-shik/Korea Joongang Daily)


Yet rejection and apathy toward colonial-era architecture seem to be shared by a large segment of the public. Besides the older man who dismissed the warehouse in Miryang as being nothing more than a place to park his motorcycle, I encountered while photographing a different colonial-era structure a young fellow who wondered out loud why anybody would have interest in some old stuff that was just left behind by the Japanese on their way out.

Not only was there a slight sense of rejection of the structure for being ‘Japanese,’ the young man had little interest in the matter since, in his mind, the building was too old to be relevant anymore.

When one considers that early modern architecture is what came to replace Korea’s beautiful, well-ordered Joseon-era city centers, hostility toward colonial artifacts is quite understandable. The Japanese government began dismantling Joseon fortresses and thousands of royal structures in the 1900s, robbing Korea of its traditional landscape. Gyeongbok Palace reportedly had over three hundred traditional-style buildings in 1910. By 1945, no more than eighteen remained. Some estimate that up to ninety-eight percent of Joseon-era architecture was destroyed during the Japanese occupation. It is then rather poetic that South Korea’s industrialization has since obliterated the colonial buildings that were once so ubiquitous.

But there is a strong argument for preserving colonial-period buildings considering that much of South Korea’s architectural heritage is actually reconstructed. Some Joseon Dynasty buildings are outright new, having been ‘restored’ in the last decade or two, and these reconstructions – like the Dongnae Eupseong Fortress in Busan, the restored roofs of Deoksugung Palace and the planned stone walkway nearby – are sometimes untrue to their original form. As such, they lack authenticity and run the risk of rewriting history, or at least creating a false representation of what the original looked like.


The newly reconstructed Dongnae Eupseong fortress in Busan (Credit: Yahoe)
The brand-new Dongnae Eupseong fortress in Busan is still considered ‘restored.’ (Credit: Yahoe/tistory)

Colonial architecture, though frequently in disrepair, at least retains its original framework. It is that authenticity both local citizens and tourists value. With so few truly old buildings in Korea, early modern architecture should then be held in much higher regard than it is.

Authentically old buildings are important, for they not only give us an experiential understanding of bygone periods that photos and texts cannot, but they also offer today’s cities a sense of history and culture in an otherwise sea of concrete. For example, popular global destinations like London, Paris, and Rome, which Seoul aspires to join the ranks of, have that feeling of “oldness” because their buildings and infrastructure have been in use for such a long time. This is not to say that Korean cities should be like European cities, but rather to show that tangible history and diversity of architecture in urban settings are partly what make the most popular cities across the globe so desired.

The issue of inauthentic and reconstructed architecture does not, however, mean that South Koreans make absolutely no effort to preserve old buildings. Early modern structures can be given a cultural heritage status if deemed historically or architecturally significant by the government’s Cultural Heritage Administration, though there are issues with these assignments.

A “Designated Cultural Heritage” building is one whose maintenance and protection is the responsibility of the central government. If such a building were to be torn down without permission, the perpetrators would be met with a lawsuit.

While this label offers relatively strong protection, the “Registered Cultural Heritage” status is much weaker. It recognizes the site or building as valuable, yet also grants its owner property rights. As such, it does little to guarantee that the structure will be maintained in as authentic or original a state as possible. The care of a Registered Cultural Heritage site is mostly dependent upon the owner, meaning that if they feel like knocking out a wall to put in floor-to-ceiling windows, they might be able to after some paperwork.

Over the last couple of decades, more and more old buildings – many former banks, government buildings, churches, impressive private estates, waterworks, and even some minor shops and houses – have received some kind of cultural heritage status.

Furthermore, various local governments have recognized the economic potential of preserving and restoring early modern architecture. The current revitalization project in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, despite being colonial-centric, has proven to be immensely successful and popular with visitors. Ganggyeong, a nearby former river port town down on its luck, is following in Gunsan’s footsteps and having sections of its own old downtown restored. The old port area of Chemulpo in present-day Incheon has seen a number of building restorations, and the former migrant fishing village of Guryongpo, Gyeongsangbuk-do, has also rescued a street of colonial structures. In Jinhae, Gyeongsangnam-do, informational signs were placed in front of a handful of minor colonial buildings just last year.


Former Gunsan Customs House (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
The former Customs House in Gunsan, a town that has successfully revitalized itself by preserving its many colonial buildings. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
The former river port town of Ganggyeong is following Gunsan's footsteps and trying to preserve remnants of its own colonial architecture. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
Old downtown Ganggyeong. This former river port town is following in nearby Gunsan’s footsteps and trying to preserve remnants of its own colonial architecture. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)

Artists and cafe owners have also taken an interest in early modern architecture. The Seochon neighborhood of Seoul is a good example of this. However, such an interest can be found all over South Korea. As a trend in using old buildings for art spaces and coffee shops has slowly grown, there is perhaps a growing niche appreciation for, if nothing else, building designs that are not concrete rectangles. This offers a kind of temporary, unofficial protection for some early modern structures.


Sonnae Onggi Cafe, located in a colonial-era house, Jeonju. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)
Sonnae Onggi Cafe, located in a colonial-era house in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do. (Credit: Nate Kornegay/Colonial Korea)

At least all of the building owners I have spoken with show an interest in maintaining their space’s sense of history. While there is still a lot of work to be done, this gives hope that some colonial-era buildings may survive after all.

Nate Kornegay photographs and writes about early modern architecture at his blog, Colonial Korea.

  • Leith Media

    One of the dilemmas of historical conservation is the balancing of public benefit vs private cost, with respect to small privately owned structures. In regards to similar passions such as antiques or classic cars, the owner deals with the tremendous costs of buying and maintaining the said object because he enjoys it and wants to preserve history. The public wants to enjoy and preserve historical buildings and yet expects the owner to maintain it or forgo rents (for example, as a parking garage) or refrain from developing the often valuable land for other purposes.

    The Dongnae Eupseong fortress reconstruction looks awful, like a theme-park entrance.


    Afghanistanis destroy Bagram air base. Nate Kornegay: “Will no one have the courage to point out that these barbarians are destroying their heritage?”

    Palestinians destroy an Israeli prison (the day will come). Nate Kornegay: “This is the height of anti-semitism. They are literally erasing history.”

    • Leith Media

      Huh? What are you trying to say?

      • KRAHN

        By predicting (with 110% accuracy) the author’s reaction to future events, I am mocking white expats’ concern for how nonwhite people treat symbols of occupation.

      • Leith Media

        It depends on how powerful of a symbolic value the building has, and also its architectural significance (some historical buildings are simply old and ugly). The notorious Government General building was built in front of Gyeongbuk Palace on purpose, to show the dominance of Japan over Korea. Hence, it was demolished. Others do not necessarily have that symbolic resonance.

        Look at how other countries have preserved the architectural legacy of colonialism. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam is known for its French Colonial architecture. The Bund in Shanghai is one of the most famous sights in that city and is known for its European-style buildings. Asmara in Eriteria has a fantastic collection of Art Deco buildings, thanks to 20th century Italian colonization.

      • BrownBee

        The Japanese get a bad rep for the “occupation” of Korea, when, in reality, they developed infrastructure tremendously. “Consider the prevalence of cherry blossom trees that never would’ve been planted had it not been for the Japanese. ” -Nate Kornegay

      • rachel

        You mention the Japanese “occupation” of Korea as if it were just some sort of an intervention that Korea needed. There is much more to that piece of history than just the Japanese modernizing Korea. It involved unimaginable, inhumane and unjust takings of the Korean culture, language, heritage, people, etc.. The physical and spiritual damage done, including literal tortures propaganda etc etc, were done in very immoral and cruel manner even in comparison to other wars and occupations around the world. Some historians say the things that the Japanese did were can be seen comparable to the Nazis, only that the Japanese continue to deny the history and/or be proud of its “occupation” while Germany acknowledges their doings. Japan may have brought some Modernization along but they also took away so much of Korea; the aftermath of it all that Korea had to go through, recovering the damage, delayed Korea from advancing forward with its full potential for quite a while. The modernization that Japanese brought did its job in taking away Korea’s distinct characteristics and values. Not to mention, those old Korean architecture (though they may look as mere old nonfunctional buildings) that Japanese went in and burnt/destroyed were actually constructed in a very clever, strategic way; they were highly functional and advanced especially for its time. It seems a bit off to simply think that Korea would have gotten nowhere had it not been for the Japanese.

    • Luke

      There’s something to be said for not erasing symbols of an unpleasant past. Germany has left many former concentration camps standing as a means of reminding both visitors and the German people that something truly terrible happened in the country’s past. By continuing to associate itself with this aspect of its history, Germany and Germans are required to acknowledge what happened, and learn that vigilance is necessary to prevent it from happening again.

      In the two scenarios you present, they could keephose structures as a way to represent their overcoming external oppression, and as a reminder that oppression comes in many forms, some which wear labels like “civilizing” or “stabilizing”. This is particularly important in preserving one’s own history. Colonialism is a part of the history of the colonized as much as it is part of the colonizers, and maintaining reminders of that aspect of their past is like having pride in battle scars. “Something terrible happened, but it is past, and we came out the victor.”

      Now, coming out the victor would represent a bit of a spin on reality for a lot of formerly colonized places, but reappropriation of symbols of colonization for other purposes–say, turning a jail into a museum, or using a former airbase into an airport, suggests overcoming adversity, which any country–anyone–ought to be proud of, not something they ought to hide.

    • Caleb Adkins

      This is a false equivalence which is a logical fallacy. While a prison, military base, government office, home or school can all be constructed during an oppressive era by an oppressive group, this does not mean that they each have an equal architectural value or symbolize oppression to the same degree. This is also a straw man argument which is, again, a logical fallacy. This is a complicated issue worthy of serious discussion.

      • KRAHN

        Caleb Adkins: “White expats have just as much right to decide the symbolic value of colonial architecture as do colonized peoples.”

        Maybe when you can do more than read a menu in Korean you can see that Koreans have been having a “serious discussion” about this topic for decades.

        Find yourself here: http://preeoz.tumblr.com/post/91112123228/pseudo-intellectual-pricks

      • RichP

        Which makes you the oppression authority I guess?

        Did you ever think that the author is taking the tone he is precisely because his audience is not the Korean public, but interested foreigners?

        You’re right, Koreans have been having a serious discussion about this topic for decades, and really the upshot of it is mostly “what kind of heritage do we want to construct to project the image we [mainly government ministers and ivory tower academics] would like the rest of the world to see of us” and “how can we twist the Nara Conventions guidelines on authenticity to best serve this end and also boost tourism”. And to be honest, that’s fine… that is one of a number of legitimate approaches to heritage. There are other voices that argue for less interventionist approaches too, but they tend not to be in positions to make policy. However, since Korea is one of the most active nations in terms of applying for UNESCO World Heritage recognition, I think it’s fair to say that foreigners (not JUST white ex-pats) do get to have a say, as the Cultural Heritage Administration do seem pretty desperate at most points to have the outside world legitimate their decisions and points of view.

  • kay

    “Korea’s beautiful, well-ordered Joseon-era city centers…”



    Japan modernized Korea. As painful as it may be for Koreans to admit, it is just the simple truth.

    If they want to pretend that by destroying these buildings, that they can rewrite their shabby history, then let them.

    • colonialkorea

      Hi.~ That sentence could use some clarification, I admit. The word “order” here, is not referring to government administration, but rather to spacial arrangement.

      With regard to spacial arrangement, Joseon landscapes followed a different definition of beauty and order. From the perspective of Western modernization, these cities looked quaint, organic, and unplanned. Photos of the areas around the gates showed this, as you can see via your first link. But greater Joseon architecture followed geomantic rules of beauty and order, which is better reflected in palaces and yangban estates. The homes of the commoners did look “disordered” by modern Western standards, but even some Westerners in Korea at the turn of the twentieth century were able to find beauty in them. I am clearly enthusiastic about Korea’s early modern architecture and history, but I also think it wise to recognize all kinds of beauty and order.

      Regarding your second comment, more information about Korean capitalists and their roles in modernizing the country is becoming available, but it is correct to say that Japan played a massive role in modernizing Korea. Per your second link, Alleyne Ireland’s 1926 book has some interesting and debatable comments on Korea’s government and colonial administration, but is not really applicable to spatial arrangement.

      Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion.~