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Interview with Oh Seung Ieek, Jeju UNESCO World Heritage Office, Jeju, South Korea

12 June 2008 No Comment

Oh SeungIeek We’re a little spoiled for choice when it comes to UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites on the island. There is Hallasan National Park, a behemoth of a place that has South Korea’s tallest mountain at 1950 meters high. Sunrise Peak, the strikingly formed tuff cone, sits on the eastern coastal tip at Seongsan. Finally, the kilometre long, subterranean, Manjanggul cave stretches out beneath us that is part of a mysterious – not open to the public – larger tube system. Distinct, unique and downright breathtaking, the sites were inscribed on to the UNESCO Natural World Heritage list in June 2007.

Talking to the man in charge

In charge of managing these sites is general manager Oh SeungIeek and, as he sweeps into the UNESCO bureau office in Sin Jeju, he cuts the air of a man who knows business. Speaking in low tones he begins to expertly field the questions we pose.

With the transitional phase from Jeju UNESCO task force to officially recognised organization completed in March, the offices main duties now involve managing the sites in terms of “protection and political issues” as well as promoting and involving more people. And more people have been arriving with a 5-6% increase in visitors since June 2007 and a 15% increase of traffic to the UNESCO endowed sites.

With an increase in visitor numbers, isn’t there a concern about degradation of the sites? Yes there is, “but [all three were] already open to the public so there is no difficulty in keeping pace with increased tourist numbers,” Oh says. Hallasan, however, has been earmarked for special attention: “In the case of Hallasan – we wonder if this number is relevant for protecting the natural reserve site. We are making an enquiry as to what number is the relevant number… [with] experts working for the universities.”

Too fragile for visitors?

Some portions of the natural world heritage sites are so fragile that they’re no open to the public – yet. The Geomun Oreum lava tube system is something that we won’t be seeing for some time. But, according to Oh, scientists are doing the research and when “the results of this research [are] published then they will decide whether to open them to the public…. because it’s really difficult to preserve the caves,” he says. “If there are a lot of tourists there is probably going to be some damage. How many could access, how long should the tourist route be… it’s [too] early to say ‘yes’ we’re opening it.” However, if the tantalizing photograph in the tourist map is anything to go by, then traversing the cave system’s underground lake by boat could be quite the experience.

Getting lost on the list

Even though Jeju has just been inscribed onto the UNESCO list, many have come and gone before. Is there a danger of it getting lost in among the 851 items? “Not really,” Oh explains. 660 are cultural, 166 are natural and 25 are mixed properties. Jeju falls under the 166 natural sites. Furthermore, they’re on the promotion offensive with a number of projects in the pipelines. Including one to foster ties with natural sites that were registered across the world in previous years. This summer closer ties with Hawaii (a sister province since 1986) are forming in a “sister-park” initiative.

Further information

Jeju is finding its feet with its newfound status and the hard work is certainly not over now that it’s made the list. For more information on the sites, including the other lava tubes in the Geomun Oreum lava tube system, visit: http://jejuwnh.jeju.go.kr/english.php.

– With thanks to KimNamjin, deputy director of the Jeju World Heritage Management Bureau.

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