North Korean Tombs Get World Heritage Listing


The United Nations cultural body has included the first North Korean site, a complex of ancient tombs that include some breathtaking murals, in its prestigious World Heritage List. A similar bid from Chinese historians for tombs on their side of the border has also been accepted.

The decision comes after Chinese delegates to this year's UNESCO conference in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou waged a long-prepared campaign to gain recognition for the Goguryeo tomb murals in the face of a contesting bid from North Korea, which had far fewer resources at its disposal.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported China's listing triumphantly in several high-profile feature stories first using the name "the Chinese kingdom of Goguryeo," with no mention of the larger North Korean site across the border until many hours later.

The tombs and murals are relics of the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C- A.D 668), which produced thousands of tombs, some decorated with colorful wall paintings dated between the 4th and the 7th centuries A.D.

Found on both sides of the Yalu River in northeast China's Ji'an, Jilin Province, and in the vicinity of Pyongyang in North Korea, around 90 of the Goguryeo tombs with wall paintings have been discovered so far.

Forty-eight new sites are vying for a place on UNESCO's prestigious World Heritage List, which often leads to increased revenue, mainly from tourism.

North Korea became party to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in October 1998 and is only just beginning to implement it, U.K.-based Korean art expert Ariane Perrin said in an online report on the tomb murals, which are found on both sides of the border between China and North Korea.

While the majority of these are located in North Korea, experts say China's bid had greater economic muscle and longer preparation behind it.

"Last year UNESCO delayed its decision to register North Korea's cultural heritage, such as ancient tomb murals, for two reasons," Professor Choi Jongtaek of the Korea University told RFA's Korean service.

"First, there was a problem of access to the heritage, for example, the ancient tomb murals, and secondly there was a problem of preservation," Choi said.

But Roni Amelan, an official with UNESCO's bureau of public information, said UNESCO this year was urging the independent committee that selects sites for to make the list more representative and balanced.

But contenders must show a high standard of public access, preservation, and sensitive development to achieve listing.

China has invested more than U.S.$2 billion and six years of preparation in its Northeast Asian heritage project aimed at showcasing the monuments of this historically rich but little-known region.

South Korea's response to Beijing's claim for recognition of its relatively small piece of ancient Korean culture has been disorganized and muted, perhaps for fear of angering an important trading partner, analysts say.

North Korea, faced with economic breakdown and famine, and virtually dependent on Beijing as its only advocate in the international community, is in even less of a position to contest China's bid for recognition of its share of the murals.


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