Diplomatic procession as world heritage

The initiatives to make the Joseon Diplomatic Procession a UNSECO World Cultural Heritage are about to begin in Korea and Japan. Korea has nine world cultural heritage sites and one natural heritage site, and Japan has twelve cultural and four natural heritage sites recognized by the internationally renowned organization as of 2012.

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Complex of Koguryo Tombs HeritageCommemoration of the friendly and peaceful past is meaningful considering the historical vicissitudes between the two neighbouring countries. Korea has about 1,400 incidents of raids, incursions and other assaults recorded between 918 and 1910, when Japan played a salient part in its collective memory of violence. The diplomatic procession stands out as an exemplary precedence of reconciliation during post-conflict transition.

The tradition goes back to the late 16th century with Hideyoshi Toyotomi's Korea invasion in 1592. One of the most powerful warlords at that time engaged in warfare against the Joseon Kingdom for seven years. Hideyoshi saw the peninsula as a gateway to China, and aspired to unify the warring regions of Japan by diverting their restless energy to the Asian continent.

The invasion ended in 1598 with Hideyoshi's death following decisive counterattacks from a Joseon-Chinese Ming united front. The inevitable consequence of provocation is the cold shoulder from neighbors and that was exactly what happened between the Joseon Kingdom and Japan.

In order to mend fences, Hideyoshi's successor, Ieyasu Tokukawa, invited the Joseon court to send a diplomatic mission to Japan. It began with a petition from Tsushima Province, the region most adjacent to the peninsula, to the Tokyo leadership asking to resume trade and barter with Joseon. In order to entice the Joseon court, it offered to return the prisoners of war abducted during Hideyoshi's invasion.

The diplomatic mission started in 1607 and made 12 visits over 260 years. It ended during the Meiji Restoration as Japan shifted its attention from Asia to Europe. Meanwhile Japan kept its word and repatriated 1,240 abductees in three allotments. The processions made 17 stops, connecting the first stop of Tsushim and the last venue in Nikko. Existing historical records describe the grandeur of 400-500 mission members whom the local townships enthusiastically welcomed. This tradition was revived in the early 2000s and continues today.

The 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage formed the framework for international action in the conservation of immovable tangible cultural heritage, which encompasses built structures, sites and landscapes.

Since then UNESCO has been leading efforts to safeguard the continuity of diverse cultural values represented in both tangible and intangible heritage. With its recognition increasing, the organization sometimes draws criticism for commemorating places of cruelty and violence, contradicting the innate meaning of heritage and consequential the over-commercialization of recognized sites.

The Joseon Diplomatic Procession has to address many challenges lying ahead to succeed in its UNESCO bid. First, an effective catchphrase is necessary. The Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome, a tragic remnant of ruthless warfare, as an example, came up with the slogan of "No More Hiroshima, No More War."

It helped connect the local experience to the global audience. The dome as a UNESCO site has become a symbol for the worldwide anti-war and pro-peace movement. A slogan with universal appeal such as reconciliation and friendship will help the procession's cause.

This bid will take meticulous coordination among various parties. They include a special overseeing committee, a group of historians and experts, local and central governments, business communities and the National Assembly among others. Citizens' support for the cause is essential to have a stronger case with the UNESCO Review Board. An NGO-initiated signature collection drive will be helpful to garner support at the grassroots level.

Furthermore very careful cooperation is essential to circumvent potential misunderstandings between Korea and Japan. The Joseon Diplomatic Procession involves more than 20 locales in both countries and a clear division of labor has to be agreed upon in the preparation stage.

This complexity has a lot to do with the fact that the Korean side deserves credit for having transmitted intangible culture to Japan, whilst most of the artifacts remain in the island country. If both Korea and Japan can prevail over these challenges and demonstrate the true spirit of cooperation and friendship, this bid in and of itself is extremely worthwhile regardless of its outcome.

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