Traditional Korean homes have walls made from stone or homemade brick and heated with an under-the-floor, charcoal-fueled ondol system.In the old days, ordinary Koreans lived in homes with woven straw roofs and stuccoed wattle-and-daub (essentially mud on a wooden frame) walls or mud walls covered by cement. Some had a roofs made of rice stalks. Thatch roofs easily caught fire, and spread to the neighboring houses, but they were easy to replace when the whole community pitched in. Over time, thatch roofs have been replaced with tile and slate roofs.

Traditional Korean homes face the south or southeast to absorb the sun's rays, block the wind and abide by the rules of feng shui (geomacy). A typical old-style Korean home was built around a courtyard, and had three to four bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. Bedrooms had floors warmed with ondols. Windows were of glass. Reflecting the Japanese influence, rooms were divided with rice paper walls mounted on wooden frames that slid on grooves in the floor and sliding doors made of latticed frames of wood covered with rice paper. Today, few people live in these kinds of houses anymore. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Traditionally, dwellings with thatched roofs and houses with clay-tile roofs symbolized rural—urban as well as lower-class—upper-class distinctions. The traditional houses of yangban (gentry) families were divided by walls into women's quarters (anch'ae ), men's quarters (sarangch'ae ), and servants' quarters (haengnangch'ae ), reflecting the Confucian rules of gender segregation and status discrimination between the yangban and their servants in the social hierarchy of the Chosun Dynasty. Western architecture was introduced in the nineteenth century. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ Members of the yangban class lived in tile-roofed houses and as recently as the 1960s there was a stigma of poverty associated with living in a thatch-roofed house. In the late 1960s when South Korea began building the first Seoul-Pusan expressway, officials noticed many thatch-roofed houses within sight of the road. Seeing these as an embarrassment for a modern country, they ordered the owners to get rid of the thatch and install tin roofs if they couldn't afford tile. Similarly, in North Korea, one of the Communist government's goals, not yet realized, has always been to enable its people to "wear silk clothes, eat meat three times a day, and live in tile-roofed houses." Today there are many Korean mansions with tile roofs that have both ondol rooms and carpeted Western-style rooms with furniture. In the wealthier neighborhoods of the big cities the comfort and style of these dwellings are the equal of fine homes anywhere in the world. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Hanok Houses

Hanok refers to houses built in the traditional Korean style. While tile-roofed and shingle-roofed houses and thatch-roofed hanoks were equally common in the past, these days hanok generally refers to tile-roofed houses. There are two main charms to hanoks. The first is the unique heating system of 'ondol' (See Below). [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

The second attractive point to hanok houses is that they are environmentally-friendly. The earth, stone, wood and paper which make up the Hanok are obtained directly from natural sources. Wood is used in pillars, rafters, doors, windows, and flooring. Walls are a mixture of straw and earth. The Korean paper used throughout the house is made from natural wood pulp and is glued to the frame of the sliding doors and the cross ribs of the windows. The floor is polished with bean oil after covering it with Korean paper, making the flooring waterproof. The Hanok breathes on its own because every material is from nature. The wood and earth breath when it is humid indoors and exhale when it is dry.

Koreans built their homes in accordance to geomancy. Houses were positioned after considering the distance and direction in line with mountains and fields as well as the location of water. The direction and structure of the position of the house were decided by this principle. The theory of geomancy is not just a simple superstition. Koreans regard a house built against the background of a mountain and facing the south as being in the most ideal location, and certain points have to be taken into consideration when constructing a residential structure, such as limiting the effects of wind off the mountain, adequate ventilation and exposure to sunlight. When considering these points, Hanok is a very practical residential form.

There are many tile-roofed houses not only occupied as private residences, but also maintained as national cultural heritages. While the number of people living in hanoks has definitely decreased, there are still many people who choose to live in hanoks. Experience the traditional culture for yourself through the many hanok villages in Korea, including Jeonju Hanok Village, Andong Hahoe Folk Village, and Bukchon Hanok Village. It is possible to stay in a guest house in a Hanok Stay.

Rooms and Parts of Traditional Homes in Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: ““The basic layout of the Korean house is still to be found in the countryside and in urban areas where the residents have enough money to own the land that is required to preserve the characteristics of the traditional home. The house is built above ground level in an L-shape, with rooms placed side by side along the inside of the wall that surrounds the family courtyard. People therefore step up and into the rooms, and they always remove their shoes before entering. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Some of the rooms are connected to each other but all of them open on the inner courtyard, either directly or via a porch that runs in front of several of the rooms. Since the rooms open inward toward the central courtyard and their back walls actually make up part of the outer wall of the enclosure, the perimeter of a Korean house can present a rather plain face to the passerby in the street. The back walls of the rooms may have small windows that look directly out onto the street, but a person can walk all around the outside of the house and learn very little about who or what is inside. This assures privacy and security. The women of the household are supposed to be safe from prying eyes and casual encounters with men on the outside, and the wealth of the household is not supposed to be obvious to thieves.

“The two parts of the L-shape are the rooms of the living quarters, normally with the kitchen at one end. The other two walls of the enclosure have the gates—normally there is a grand entrance called a taemun, which is big enough for a vehicle, and usually there is a smaller pedestrian gate cut in one side so people can pass to and fro without having to open the entire taemun— and, if the compound is big enough to warrant it, there is a smaller back gate that is only for people. In olden times—and still in many farmhouses— there is the privy, or outhouse, inside the wall a few paces from the living quarters.

“In the country there may also be a pen in one corner of the courtyard for an ox or other animal. There may also be a pigpen. In the center of the courtyard there may be a well, sometimes with a pump. In the city, of course, there is running water from the central system. Koreans have a unique system for heating their homes in the winter. The kitchen is built lower than the other rooms. Cooking is done over a fire whose smoke and hot air are fed through a system of channels underneath the floors of the rooms that lead to chimneys at the other end of the house. Since the floors in these rooms are solid rock, mud, and mortar, they retain the heat that is channeled through them, keeping the occupants warm throughout the day and night.”

Construction, Architectural Features and Gardens of Traditional Homes in Korea

The gabled, tile roofs of traditional Korean buildings are different from the roofs of traditional buildings in Japan and China. Korean roofs curve gently upwards at the corners of the eaves. In contrast Japanese roofs have straight edges and Chinese buildings have upturned appendages. The great central beam is the important part of a traditional Korean building. It is built before the walls.

Upper class families lived in tile-roof houses usually surrounded by a stone wall with a front gate. There was often a cowshed, servants quarter or barn next to the gate. The "L"-shape or "⊏"-shape main structure included a main living room for women, a hall, a room facing the main living room and men's quarters. Kitchens were usually dimly lit and had an earthen floor.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The basic Korean house is built first by laying the floor with its channels for the ondol heating system and a covering of flat rocks, mud, and mortar. The structure itself rises on upright beams that support the beams of the roof structure. Doors and windows consist of wood-framed openings with actual door and window panels covered with white rice paper instead of glass. Mud brick walls are constructed between the uprights and covered with plaster, while the roof is covered with straw thatch. Simple wood and earth materials are used for the kitchen and outhouse. The enclosing wall is made of stones laid along layers of earthen bricks and protected from the rain by a "roof of thatch running along the top of the wall. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“In some cases they have gardens planted with lawns and carefully manicured trees, shrubs, and flowerbeds. Westerners would call these "Japanese" or "Chinese" gardens since they are more familiar with gardens in those countries, but in fact they contain the elements that are common to gardens throughout the region. These include trees that are often cut in topiary fashion, hedges, dwarf trees and shrubs, running water and small ponds that sometimes contain fish, decorative rocks, and man-made items such as stone lanterns, statues, and short sections of decorative wall.


Most traditional Korean are heated by “ondol, a system a stone flues that distributes heat underneath the floor. Used before the Three Kingdom Period (18 B.C.-A.D. 668) by the Puyo tribes living in Manchuria, ondol came into wide use in Korea during the Koryo Period (918-1392).

In the old days, ondols consisted of stone slabs that were heated by logs, straw or coal briquettes called yantan. These days yantan is still used in rural homes, but most ondols systems and heated by water heated by a boiler. Many modern homes have an ondol-like copper tubes for hot water running under their cement floors. Ondol for the most part is safe but occasionally you hear stories about people dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in improperly-ventilated ondol houses.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The traditional heating system for Korean homes, consisting of hollow passages under the floor that carry hot smoke and gases from the kitchen fire the length of the house to the chimney on the opposite end, warming the floor and heating the rooms. Requires tight sealing of floors to prevent carbon monoxide from entering the room. Modern improvements to ondol floors include circulation of warm water in pipes under the floor, a system popular in modern apartment buildings. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Ondol helps residents endure the cold of winter. The word ‘ondol,’ now listed in the Oxford Dictionary, literally means “warming the stone.” When heat coming from the fire in the kitchen is connected to the other rooms, the layer of stone in the floor of the target room becomes heated. The warm air at floor level rises, keeping the temperature of the whole room comfortable.

Traditional Ondol Floors

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Traditional ondol floors were heated by channeling warm air and smoke through a system of under-the-floor flues from an exterior fireplace. Those floors typically were made of large pieces of flat stone tightly covered with several square-yard-size pieces of lacquered paper in light golden brown to present an aesthetically pleasing surface and prevent gas and smoke from entering the room. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Customarily, the "lower end" of the room (araemmok ), which is the closest to the source of heat, was reserved for honored guests and the senior members of the household, while people of lower social status occupied the "upper end" (ummok ), farthest from the source of heat and near the door. This customary practice reflected the social hierarchy. This distinction does not exist in the modern apartments because the heating system is centrally controlled.”

When hanoks — traditional Korean houses — are built, a layer of stone is layed down above the foundation. The heat from the kitchen fire runs through this open space, warming the stone above. This heat spreads up into every room throughout the house, keeping both the floor and the air surprisingly warm in winter. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Ondol Lifestyle

The use of ondol has influenced the Korean culture, creating a a lifestyle of sitting on the floor, even in modern times. Families enjoyed sitting on the floor to enjoy the warmth and sometimes roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts on a stove set on top of the ondol for extra warmth. In the West, the cold floor is often avoided, while chairs and beds are preferred. However, the comfort of the ondol means that Korean people, rather than avoiding the floor, make full use of it. In fact, the reason that it is necessary to take off shoes before entering a house is to keep the floor as clean as possible. This is because the floor is used for both dining and sleeping; short folding tables are brought out when dining, and bedclothes are placed on the heated floor at night for sleeping.

The words ‘downside’ and ‘upside’ are both derived from ondol. The floor near the fireplace is heated and is the hottest area when the fire is burning hot. The Korean people are always aware of the need to show respect to the elderly and therefore this area, the downside, is usually reserved for elders of the family. Fires are less necessary during the summer and Korean homes kept cool by utilizing natures cooling system, the movement of air. The Hanok house has fewer walls and more doors. When the door is closed, it becomes a wall and when it is open, it brings in the breeze to keep air circulating throughout the living spaces. That is why the Hanok keeps cool in the heat of summer.

Ondol is also used for medicinal purposes. The Korean language has the phrase “sizzling the body,” which refers to a kind of fomentation effect that is created when somebody lies on the hot floor in the cold winter. Such fomenting is known as being effective for tired or sick people, pregnant women and the elderly. To this day, Koreans prefer to forment on a toasty ondol floor when they get a cold or other such illness.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Koreans are so found of their ondol floors “even in modern apartments they build copper pipes in the floors to carry warm water and achieve the same effect.... At night, the few pieces of furniture are pushed to the side and pads and quilts are brought from the closet and unrolled for sleeping, again on the warm floor. The floor in a Korean house therefore is not really a "floor" at all but a special living surface that is constantly being cleaned and polished. Stepping on this surface with shoes on would be like stepping on the sofa or bed with shoes on in an American house. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Origin of the Ondol Heating System

‘Ondol’ is thought to have originated somewhere in northeast Asia. Though the ondol is associated with Korea and northeast Asia, the oldest known ‘ondol’ was excavated from the Aleutian Islands. According to “Aspects of Aleutian Prehistory”: The remains of four or more houses dated to 1000 B.C. at the Amaknak Bridge excavations on Unalaska Island had under floor, stone lined , channel heating systems similar to the Korean Ondal type A.

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in her website “Heritage of Japan”: The Aleutian ondol discovery “suggests the ondol may have originated in early times with the Siberian (possibly) Chukchi peoples (or peoples in Eastern Siberia and in the Amur River and Kamchatka Peninsula area who came into contact with them in Siberia) and eventually the technology made its way from there across the Bering Sea to the Aleutian Islands as well as to other northeast Asians including proto-Koreans in the north (Balhae Kingdom for example). Rivalling this early discovery, is another find around the same time is another ondol find at an archaeological site in present-day North Korea, in Unggi, Hamgyeongbuk-do. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, |||] reported: “What are believed to be the world’s oldest underfloor stone-lined-channel heating systems have been discovered in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in the U.S. The heating systems are remarkably similar to ondol. According to “Archaeology”, a bi-monthly magazine from the American Archaeological Society, the remains of houses equipped with ondol-like heating systems were found at the Amaknak Bridge excavation site in Unalaska, Alaska. [Source:, June 26, 2007]

“The leader of the excavation, archaeologist Richard Knecht from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said that the team began the dig in 2003. Radiocarbon dating shows the remains are about 3,000 years old. Until now the oldest known ondol heating systems were built 2,500 years ago by the Korean people of North Okjeo in what is now Russia’s Maritime Province. Professor Knecht said four ondol structures were discovered at the site. Other ondol structures were found in the area in 1997 but it was not known what they were at the time.

“According to Knecht’s data, the Amaknak ondol were built by digging a two- to four-meter-long ditch in the floor of the house. Flat rocks were place in a “v” shape along the walls of the ditch, which was then covered with more flat rocks. There was also a chimney to let the smoke out. Professor Song Ki-ho of the department of Korean history at Seoul National University looked over the Amaknak excavation report. “All ancient ondol are one-sided, meaning the underfloor heating system was placed on just one side of the room. The ondol in Amaknak also seem to be one-sided,” he said. As the ondol of North Okjeo and Amaknak are more than 5,000 kilometers apart, Knecht and Song agree that the two systems seem to have been developed independently. This theory is backed up by the fact ondol have not been found in areas between the two locations, such as Ostrov, Sakhalin or the Kamchatka Peninsula, and because the Amanak ondol are significantly older than those of the Russian Maritime Province.

In 2009, reported: “Archaeologists have unearthed the largest “ondol” heating system, dating back to the 10th century from the Balhae Kingdom, in a nearly intact state in Russia’s Maritime Province, confirming the kingdom to have been a Korean settlement. They were a distinct feature of Korean dwellings and are not found in the remains of Chinese, Khitan or Jurchen homes. According to The Chosun Ilbo, the discovery proves not only that Balhae was a successor state to the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo, but also defeats the logic of China’s recent “Northeast Project”, which says Koguryo and Balhae were simply autonomous Chinese frontier districts. [Source:, September 15, 2009]

“The Koguryo Research Foundation and Russia’s Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnology of the People of the Far East, which are conducting joint excavations at a site in the Russian town of Kraskino, announced on August 27 that they confirmed remains of ondol pipes 14.8 meters in length presumed to be from the 10th century, toward the end of the Balhae period. The trace of the U-shaped ondol pipe which points toward the southwest, is 3.7 meters wide to the west, 6.4 meters to the north and 4.7 meters to the east, and is 1-1.3 m wide. Professor Evgenia Gelman of Far-Eastern State Technical University, who unearthed the remains, said that the discovery clearly showed Balhae to have been a successor state to Koguryo.

Living in a Traditional Korean House

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Until the second half of the twentieth century, when Koreans began moving into better and more urban kinds of dwellings, this basic farmhouse was part of everyone's experience. Even today, most Koreans share the sensory memories that come from having lived in the basic Korean farmhouse. These include the sight and feel of the wallpaper, the yellow-brown color of the earth and mud, and the sound of rain splashing in courtyard puddles during the summer monsoon. The smells include the wood smoke that emanated from the cooking fire and sometimes seeped up through cracks in the foundation to permeate everything in the house, the musty rolled-up bedding, kimch'i pickle in jars and cooking oil in the pan, and dried fish. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“ And their fingertips "remember" the feel of the wood porches worn smooth by generations of sock-clad feet, the comforting warmth that came from underneath the floor, and the holes that were poked in the door paper so people could check on what was happening in the courtyard. These are powerful memories that help make Koreans feel like Koreans. The wealth and size of a family have dictated variations on the theme of the basic Korean house. All houses, no matter how elaborate, are built around a courtyard. However, a better home would have a sarangbang, or visiting room, for the man of the house to entertain his friends and do business. This room usually has its own door to the street as well as a door onto the family courtyard, an ondol floor of its own, and accoutrements such as books and a low desk. Women and children are generally not welcome in the sarangbang, but rather spend the day separately, in women's quarters known as "inner rooms" (anpang). The rooms of a Korean house serve multiple purposes. What might appear to be a living room during the day becomes a bedroom at night, as people take their bedrolls and lay them out on the warm floor. At mealtimes the same room might be a place where food tables are brought in and people gather to eat.

“Nowadays many families eat together, but in traditional times the men of the household were served first and ate separately. Women ate in their own rooms and children ate at their own table, either with the women or last of all. The work of cooking and cleaning up was entirely the responsibility of the women of the household or, in some cases, the cook or housemaid. A wealthier family's house might be distinguished most readily by the fact that it had a roof of tile instead of straw thatch. Tile roofs on the rooms, sarangbang, gates, and even along the walls indicated real status in a village and were proof of a family's prosperity.”

Diminishing Numbers of Hanoks in Seoul

The number of hanoks in Seoul from about 1,600 in 1985 to has fallen to fewer than 900 in 2010. Andrew Salmon wrote in the New York Times: “ Pale winter sunlight filters through rice paper windows, warming the blond woodwork of the intricate roof beams. "This is not architecture: it's craft," Yoon Young Ju said as he showed visitors around his hanok, a traditional Korean home. Bought for 600 million won (US$584,000) and restored for an additional 200 million, the house is clearly its owner's pride and joy. "Look," the Seoul restaurateur said, "the frame is all wood. It's like a big piece of furniture." But Yoon's hanok is an anomaly. [Source: Andrew Salmon, New York Times, January 31, 2005]

“A single oasis of yesteryear's residences” remain in Seoul: “the sector of Bukchon — North Village — an old aristocratic neighborhood nestled between Seoul's two main palaces. Yoon's home sits in the center of this time-capsule, where the old city — a maze of alleys and little, curved-roof dwellings — lives on. Barely. Kim Dong Nam of Korea's National Trust said: "Modern development was totally geared toward Western-style living. High-rises were seen as symbols of success, and that contributed to the destruction of hanok and small alleys. Also, unlike European architecture, hanok are very small, usually one-story. As land prices rose, they were no longer efficient." She added: "In a way, it's a miracle Bukchon was saved."

“During the 1970s and '80s, while the rest of Seoul was being remodeled by mayors with nicknames like "Bulldozer Kim," the government maintained strict regulations on Bukchon. The area's hanok owners were not even allowed to install such modern amenities as flush toilets. Given the nature of Korea's then-military regime, residents suffered in silence, but after Korea democratized at the end of the 1980s, the dam burst. Protests mounted, and the government bowed to pressure from the area's landlords, who were desperate to cash in on the real estate boom by building apartments they could rent out. "In 1991, the Roh administration deregulated and allowed people to build modern buildings," said Youn Hyeok Kyung, director of Seoul City's Urban Design Division. "In 1994, height limits were lifted." The single-story homes stood no chance. "Six hundred hanok disappeared after 1991, as owners raised new buildings. Only at the end of 1999 did residents of the area approach the city government, as they realized preservation was needed. That was the start."

A new policy was instituted in 2001. The city hall now provides 30 million won in grants to owners who wish to restore hanok, and 20 million in interest-free loans. It has also bought 26 hanok and opened them to the public. Since the policy was introduced, only 24 hanok have been leveled in Bukchon. But the legacy of the 1990s is a loss of "village" character: The hanok now co-exist uneasily with modern villa apartments and shop buildings. Of the 2,500 homes in Bukchon, less than half are hanok.

“Even so, in the quiet back alleys here, the hanoks' blend of the practical, the cozy and the aesthetic can be experienced. The principle of feng shui states: "North high - South low." As the area backs onto a mountain to the north, the houses are stacked like a row of movie seats. They face south, to absorb maximum sunlight in the winter; curved eaves keep each home shaded in summer, when the sun rides higher.

“The kitchen faces east: The women awoke early to prepare food and the sun's rays were believed to have anti-bacteriological effects on ingredients. A clay-floored attic was placed above the kitchen: If a fire broke out - a particular danger in a wooden house - this would collapse, extinguishing the flames. Heating came via under-floor flues, so residents were warmed from below. Houses were three- or four-sided, built around courtyards, providing a closed-off outdoor space, often planted with trees. And in the walls, the largest stones were at the bottom, while smaller bricks were at the top, drawing the eye up to the house's most aesthetic feature: its curved, grey-tiled roof. Now, after decades of conventional wisdom that saw hanok as old-fashioned, uncomfortable and difficult to maintain, people are beginning to recognize their desirability. Land prices in Buckchon have increased three fold since 2001, according to city officials. The trend has been picked up by the press.

“But outside Bukchon the devastation continues. Bartholomew, who leads an annual Royal Asiatic Society walking tour around Seoul's old districts, laments that, every year, more old homes have been destroyed, even in areas where there is a clear interest in preservation, such as Insadong, a "traditional" tourist zone of galleries, antique shops and craft stores. Although scattered hanok still stand in 40 Seoul districts, no preservation policies exist beyond Bukchon. "Seoul is under huge development pressure. People are tempted to ignore preservation for commercial reasons," said Youn of city hall, referring to the Korean preference for investing and speculating in real estate rather than capital markets. "Bukchon is the first area to have a budget put aside for citizens' houses."

“Even preserved hanok are not always renovated appropriately. "Restorations here cover a totally different philosophy to preservation than they do in the West," Bartholomew said. "In the West, every piece of original material must be preserved. In Asia, the preservation technique is to replace everything that's twisted, cracked, stained or even worn. Attention to detail in wood grains, surfaces, etc., is ignored." “ .

Trying to Preserve Hanoks in Seoul

British-born David Kilburn, who has have owned a hanok house in Seoul since 1988, is battling the systematic destruction of the traditional dwellings, which are disappearing despite the creation of a preservation zone. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “He's known as the feisty foreigner, the outsider waging a one-man fight for "the district where beauty gathers." Kilburn remembers the first time he wandered Kahoi Dong, a hilly enclave in the heart of the Seoul where clusters of traditional buildings hanok houses dot winding, narrow streets.” He “can't forget the serenity he felt when he set foot inside one of the historic one-story homes. It was like stepping back in time, to a quainter Seoul of a century ago. He marveled at the aged pine ceiling beams, the graceful curve of the black-tiled roof, the high walls that encircled the courtyard like a cocoon, the wooden doorway that seemed designed to protect inhabitants from the sterile high-rise apartments that loomed in the near distance. "It was a place of magical beauty," Kilburn said. "I wanted to live in one of these homes. I wanted to own one." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2010]

“A former journalist, Kilburn was in Seoul to cover the 1988 Olympics but fell so much in love with the traditional architecture that he decided to stay. He and his Korean wife, Jade, soon bought a hanok house. But life there has been anything but serene. For six years, Kilburn has been battling city officials over what he calls the systematic destruction of hanok homes in the area. Despite the creation of a preservation zone there decades ago, hundreds of hanoks have been demolished by developers and speculators who use loopholes to cash in on rising land values, he says.

“City officials acknowledge that not all preservation efforts have worked. "We're trying to preserve the hanoks," said Han Hyo-dong, director of the city's Hanok Culture Division. "But we have no legal power. We cannot stop [the destruction]. We're trying to pass laws to enforce our protection efforts." That's not enough for Kilburn, who in 2005 launched a website to chronicle demolitions in the protection zone.

“He says he has sued in court and badgered police and city officials, including President Lee Myung-bak, when he was mayor of Seoul mayor from 2002 to '06. Armed with a camera, Kilburn documents the demolitions, inspiring a wave of activism among South Koreans. Many have contacted city officials to express their displeasure over the destruction of the hanoks and suggest the construction of a computer database to monitor the future of every hanok house in Seoul. Using a map posted on Kilburn's website,, others drop by Kilburn's hanok unannounced, saying they want to go on camera and do their part to protest the teardowns. So Kilburn gets out his video camera and tapes them talking about the homes they remember from their childhood and how they should be beloved, not bulldozed. Kilburn has collected scores of the video statements on his website. "It's because of him these houses continue to exist," said Jung In, a nearby shopowner. "To me, he's not a foreigner. He's more Korean than many Koreans."

“Not everyone is enthusiastic. Although many city officials publicly welcome Kilburn's interest in the hanoks, many privately dismiss him as a pest. In 2006, the tensions over his protests turned physical. In 2006, while videotaping an illegal demolition, Kilburn says, he was assaulted by a construction architect who knocked him to the ground. But it was Kilburn who was later charged with assault. He left South Korea for two years but returned in March, prepared to start his fight anew. "They thought my departure meant they'd gotten rid of me," he said with a smile. "But I came back."

“The battle started in 2004 when a neighbor rebuilt his hanok, causing damage to Kilburn's home. He soon discovered that many homeowners were using city grants and low-interest loans to demolish traditional houses to make way for more modern structures, adding small flourishes to make them look like original hanoks.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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