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Korea’s Living National Treasures: A key topic omitted at the 2024 Korea-Africa Summit

Building a strong science, technology and economy over a people who have not come to a full appreciation of themselves and their culture is akin to placing a band-aid on an infected ulcer
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Like most African countries, South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, was colonized and crippled by Cold War geopolitics. Since 1962, Korea’s policy of Living National Treasures has been a key catalyst for rebuilding the country. Yet, this crucial programme was completely overlooked during the recently concluded 2024 Korea-Africa Summit. Indeed, there was no mention of the policy of Korea’s Living National Treasures, which has been foundational in establishing the country as a major player in global affairs. This is not surprising given that outside of the country, Korea’s Living National Treasure is not widely understood as the cornerstone of Korea’s national rebuilding. It is most likely that many African leaders and representatives who went to Seoul with great expectations of establishing mutually beneficial relationships did not know about the concept. Without doubt, however, African countries need to understudy and understand the basic principles of Korea’s Living National Treasures with a view to replicating similar policy nationally as well as regionally through the African Union and other regional organizations.

Understanding Korea’s Living National Treasures

Similar to what European colonialism did to African countries, the Japanese colonization of South Korea aimed to annihilate the social and cultural fabric of the wider Korean society. Between 1910 and 1945, when Japan occupied and colonized the Republic of Korea, the imperial power went to great lengths to rewrite Korean history, portraying the Korean culture as primitive. To “civilize” Korea, Japan actively dismantled and discredited Korea’s traditional knowledge and entire way of life. This act of cultural and societal destruction included the suppression of community festivals, folk songs, folk arts and traditional performances and sports, among others.

By 1945, when Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces, the Korean identity had been significantly altered. When the Cold War split Korea into Northern Korea (held by the USSR) and Southern Korea (held by the United States), another dimension of imperialism was imposed on the already damaged core of the Republic of Korea.

By 1962, however, Korea embarked on a path to a recovery of its authentic cultural identity by promulgating Act No. 961. The Act was promulgated with the understanding that the solid foundations for a nation’s existence and thriving are not built on the sub-structure of science, technology and economic policies, but on the super-structure of a self-aware, self-embracing and culturally authentic population. Act No. 961 defined the need and framework for protecting Korean intangible cultural properties, namely music, dance, drama, games, ceremonies, martial arts, crafts, and cuisine, among others.

Article 1 of the Act reads: “…the purpose and function of this Act shall be to preserve cultural properties and make the most of them in pursuance of the promotion of nationwide cultural aspiration, concurrently with the contribution to the cultural progress of mankind.”

In order to reverse the decades of damage done to every aspect of Korean culture, a category entitled ‘Folk Cultural Properties’ was crafted and included as part of Act No. 961. Accordingly, ‘Folk Cultural Properties’ are defined as “…manners and customs relating to food, clothing and shelter, occupation, religion or annual events, etc., and the clothes, utensils or houses, etc., used therein, which are indispensable for understanding the development of people’s living conditions … (sections 2-4).”

These principles show that Korea focused on several avenues of bringing the population back to taking a sense of pride in their culture and indigenous knowledge. Education has been a key feature of the policy. At the formal level, scholarships are established in schools to promote Korea’s intangible heritage. Measures were taken to preserve and protect this heritage in case of an emergency or threat of external disruption. Culturally significant performances are systematically organized and entrenched across all levels of governance. A Cultural Properties Committee was established and tasked with the responsibility of selecting, recognizing and promoting National Living National Treasures. These treasures include citizens – individual or collective – who hold a deep knowledge of traditional knowledge, known as “Important Intangible Cultural Properties.”

Once designated as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property Holders,’ these Korean National Living National Treasures benefit from a monthly allowance, health insurance and assistance covering the cost of hospital care where necessary, as well as grants for training and professional development programmes. In return, the holders are required to ensure the transmission of the indigenous knowledge heritage they hold to concerned future generations and to promote traditional culture by giving public performances. The Cultural Properties Committee monitors such activities to ensure that the bearers are indeed carrying out their responsibilities.

The impact of this policy has been enormous. From being a downtrodden country, Korea has grown to become a nation of culturally aware citizens who are able to hold up against the domination of other cultures/countries.

Entrenching the concept of Living Human Treasure across Africa

Seeing the massive impact of this policy on South Korea, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the policy, which it encourages member states to implement. By the end of the 20th century, UNESCO had authored a guide titled “Guidelines for the Establishment of National Living Human Treasures Systems” (NLHTSs), which was distributed to Member States, aiming to promote the concept of Living Human Treasures and encourage the formulation of national NLHTS lists. Some UNESCO countries have begun to implement this practice in various degrees, but in Africa it is Senegal in 2006 and Nigeria in 2007 that adopted the idea of Living Human Treasures.

Nigeria’s foray into recognizing Living Human Treasures was short-lived and lacked sustainability.  It was more of an event than the painstaking process of rebuilding that South Korea pursued, which ensured its success. The Nigerian Living Human Treasures event was a high-budget fanfare event that took place in 2007 with food, drink and an assortment of politicians, with the aim of presenting awards to “honour some custodians of intangible cultural heritage in Nigeria.”

This is very far from the intentions of the Living Human Treasure as a means of sustainably rebuilding the broken-down walls of Africa’s authentic indigenous heritage, battered by years of colonialism, imperialism and neocapitalism. Absent from Nigeria’s experiment are enduring, self-sustaining systems, processes, platforms or structures to rebuild the identities of the micronations that make up the country, as well as forge a common national heritage. These, among other shortcomings, truncated the concept in its infancy.

What we need to do in Africa has been articulated by the renowned African decolonial writer Chinweizu, in his book Decolonizing the African Mind, where he underscores the significance of cultivating an authentic African identity, and urges a reassessment of traditional African values, which were disrupted during the colonial era. South Korea established the Living National Treasures to reinvent, build advocacy and re-entrench the values of indigenous knowledge and the cultural wealth of the country. It was more about rediscovering and moulding a passion for the foundational values of the country that was destroyed by colonialism towards galvanizing the population around a shared Korean identity.

From Korea’s experience, it’s unmistakable that education is key in the process of achieving this goal. Korea utilized formal, informal and nonformal education to transform the colonial mindset of its citizens. Africa must do the same. Formal education curricula should be deconstructed and reconstructed with input from Living National Treasures who are holders of traditional knowledge. Informally, movies, documentaries, and social media advocacy should be galvanized around Africa’s intangible heritage. Nonformally, conferences, meetings, workshops and other gatherings should be established and held sustainably as a system of working with Living National Treasures to articulate and disseminate Africa’s intangible cultural heritage. It is important for Africans to own this process as much as possible. The organized private sector in Africa, as well as in the diaspora, should be well incorporated. Building advocacy around Africa’s Living National Treasures should not at all be another financial burden placed on already overburdened African governments.

Eminent Professor Ali Mazrui once said that “a people denied of their history is a people deprived of dignity.” Like the Japanese deprived the Koreans of their history and their culture and, therefore, their dignity, Africans were for decades deprived of their authentic history and culture, leading to a loss of dignity. This loss of dignity is manifest in both the way Africans view themselves and other Africans, as well as in the way Africans are seen among the comity of nations.  Like the Republic of Korea realized decades ago and began to reconstruct, Africans will need to take measures to reconstruct their cultures. Trying to build a strong science, technology and economy over a people who have not come to a full appreciation of themselves and their culture is akin to placing a band-aid on an infected ulcer. The 2025 Africa-Korea Summit would have offered a great avenue for the exchange of ideas on the National Living Treasures Policy of Korea.

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