The Korean National Archives

I just came back from a day at the Korean National Archives headquarters in Taejŏn (Daejeon) and thought I would share some details of the experience in case someone comes across this posting who will be making the trip down there at some point in the future. I also plan to get around to making a detailed entry on the East Asian Libraries and Archives wiki. Read on for the meat.

First of all, you might want to pay a visit to the homepage of the national archives, located here:


In comparison with the National Archives in the United States, my experience has been that the search engine of the Korean national archives returns information on far smaller units of archival information and provides such information for a far greater percentage of the total number of holdings in the archive. Whereas some archive online indexing might provide index entries that get no more detailed than labeling entire shelves worth or whole collections, most of the online index entries for files I have requested for my field of early post-liberation documents averaged 5-10 pages in size. In contrast, huge amounts of the National Archives in the US have not been added to the online index, and sometimes done even have guides or paper based indexes. The obvious reason for this is the huge difference in size in the collections but the efforts of the Korean national archives are still impressive.

As of the date of this posting, many services provided by the website require you to create an account on the webpage. Korean’s may use their citizen registration number. There is an English language account registration system that does not ask for the citizen registration number but it is completely broken so at this point foreigners cannot register at the site. I complained about this today to an archivist and I hope this will be fixed soon.

As with most of the internet in Korea, you must use the Windows operating system and Internet Explorer to view the vast majority of the fascinating materials on the site. There are numerous Active X plugins and web pages will not render properly at all even when there isn’t if you use Firefox, Safari, etc. on many of the parts of the site.

A lot of the historical documents you can find through the online search are directly viewable through a somewhat slow and annoying plug-in based viewer. You can zoom in and move around the document but I have found no way to easily print (without using some tricks) or download copies of the images of pages of documents that are available online. Still, however, we should be grateful that such a huge amount of materials (including all Presidential office files I came across going back to 1948) are viewable online without going anywhere.

In addition, very many of the files you might come across in a search that are not available for viewing online at the website have already been scanned and exist, as far as I have been able to determine, 1) as TIFF files on DVD files held in the archive offices 2) inside an internal intranet database which is only accessible by login by archivists. When I asked why all these scanned files were no also viewable online, I was told that the intranet also contains scans of files which have not been opened to the public (비공개) so they cannot put them all online. I refrained from asking the next obvious question which was, “Why not put online all the files which, as you show me on the screen, are clearly marked 공개” or which you just let me peruse through on this DVD?

So what do you do to see these documents that are not direcly viewable online? Well, there are three offices (with a new archival building just recently completed in Kyŏnggi-do but I’m not sure what its relation is to the other offices) where you can go.

a) There is a small and crowded (I’m told, I haven’t yet been) office in Seoul which holds very few materials but from which you can request copies sent to you of documents from other archive holdings. I will report more on this when I have been there and see how their system differs from what I saw in Taejŏn.

b) The Taejŏn headquarters. Located a few hundred meters from the 정부청사역 subway station. Today I caught the 6:15 무궁화 train for 10,500 won from Seoul station to 대전, arriving at 8:13, and with the subway and walk to the building, I reached the reading room exactly at 9am when it opened.

Taejŏn archive reading room on first floor here

c) The Pusan branch. Supposedly mostly earlier Chosŏn period documents but many of the early post-liberation documents I was looking for with file location numbers beginning with “BA” or “BD” where located in Pusan.

The website of the national archives encourages you to create an account on the website, find materials you want to look at, put them in your shopping cart, and then request these documents through an online request service and make a “reservation for your visit” (방문예약신청). Using an account created by a Korean friend of mine I was able to get files into the shopping cart, and fill all the forms to schedule a visit (at least 3 days beforhand) and request these documents to be available for my visit to the Seoul office. However, I got no less than three different errors, some more colorful and meaningful than others but the website is completely broken as of today. I confirmed this together with an archivist at the Taejŏn branch who told me that the people who designed the online request service have not been in communication with the various branches and claims to make possible the sending of documents all over the place in a way that isn’t at all possible online. He recommended to me that I simply go directly to the offices on any day I wish without ever bothering with this reservation system, at least until they get it fixed.

So, the lesson learned today was the last 2 days I spent trying to get the website to work was almost a total waste: foreigners cannot currently register, and registered Koreans cannot follow the online instructions to make online requests of materials for pickup three days later at the archives. The online reservation system is down and never worked as it claimed to.

So what do you do when you have located some files in the search engine which are not available online and which you have not been able to request through the online application? I’m hoping much, if not all of what I say below can also be accomplished at the Seoul office, but I had a friend in Taejŏn today and had him join me on my trip down there today on a reconnaissance trip there.

1) Make a list of the files you wish to look at. Write down their file name (e.g. “경찰대와 보안대의 충돌”) and the file number (e.g. CTA0003357). Many file numbers can refer dozens of files so you need the name as well.

2) Bring your passport and pay a visit to the Taejŏn archive reading room, located in the 정부대전청사2동 around the corner from the subway station. As you enter the building make note of your passport number, surrender your passport to the information desk as you enter and take their 국가기록원 guest pass to hang around your neck. There is an X-ray machine as you go in with a guard nearby. Everyone beeps as they go through with all their metal objects but I saw no one get stopped or searched.


3) Enter the National Archive reading room on the first floor (국가기록정보센터). It looks more like a post office than an archive reading room and it is very small. There are some computers on the left, a table for reading documents on the right, and a table with application forms for documents.

4) Fill out a request form. There is an filled-out example form there for reference. The form asks you for: Name, Address, Telephone, Email, Passport Number, Requested material details, whether you want to simply view the documents, have them copied for you, have them made into an electronic file, etc as well as whether you want to pick this up directly or have it mailed to you etc. The wonderful range of options here might get you excited but the fact is, apparently, that you can’t actually do all this, at least I tried and was not able to in many cases.

5) Submit the form. If they have scanned copies of the documents sitting on a DVD or accessible within their internal database then you may be able to view them almost immediately. For paper based files I had to wait about 45 minutes in the longest case but I was told this was unusual. There is not, like the US national archives set “pull times” when you are allowed to request documents. I was told you can request to view up to 10 files per request sheet, though if the amount is huge they may not bring all of it.

-Here is where things seem to get really disorganized and somewhat illogical. You could request copies of files, but the online search often doesn’t tell you the number of pages. So you might be asking to copy 3 pages or 300 if you directly ask for a copy of a file without first requesting it for viewing (열람). At 50 won per copy, this can add up, especially if you discover the huge file turns out to be a useless list of names or something else not as interesting as its title suggests. The nice archivist was kind enough to look up the number of pages in his internal database before I decided if I wanted to request copies.

The system is confusing because, though a huge number of files exist already in some kind of digital form, the methods for accessing this strikes me as hopelessly inefficient. First of all, the request system works as if you are dealing with all paper documents. So, for example, there is a 200 won “pull fee” for each file, whether you are handed a yellow folder of documents or you “pull” it yourself by opening a TIFF file on a DVD with hundreds of files that the archivist has handed you (I was charged 400 won I believe for a longer document but I don’t understand how they can charge more for larger files if they are all TIFF files on a DVD). Plus you are only supposed to open files listed on your request form but I was happily unmolested as I browsed the DVD he handed me. Also, the file system on the DVD I was handed was anything but transparent and the archivist had to hand me a handwritten note with TIFF file names for files I was looking for.

Since I discovered I had FTP access to my web server on the archive computer through the MS-DOS command line in windows, there was nothing to stop me from uploading the entire DVD to my web server, including the hundreds of files on it. There was no security or firewall on the computers I was shown. Out of respect for the archive I didn’t upload the DVD. Furthermore, I was told if I wanted to get a digital copy of the files, this was probably not possible, but if it was possible the files had to be “sent” for watermarking before I could be given a copy. However, I was allowed to print them directly from the computer without any watermark if I paid the 50 won fee. I was told the DVD did not exist in Seoul and could not be sent to Seoul if I tried to request it in future. This baffled me, since it merely contained a few dozen folders full of TIFF files, and I don’t understand why these could not be sent to the Seoul office or shared over their existing network – surely an easier task than sending paper copies of the original files found in the Pusan branch to the Seoul office, which I told was possible in many other cases.

In other cases the files are in paper and digital form but the digital form exists on a large hard drive system which I was told physically swaps out drives for accessing files (which explains the 2-3 minute download times for some of the 1-3 page files I looked at). Thus, I found many documents that were in the Pusan branch, not viewable online, but had been digitized and existed in the intranet accessible only to archivists in all the offices. He could have just told me to go to Pusan, but instead he was nice enough to walk over to my computer, login to his intranet, and let me look up these Pusan files through his intranet using his username. I was surprised, since he had told me that system also had access to digital files not open yet to the public but he apparently trusted me because he said the files in my request were all open, but I was carrying a notebook with me which had the file numbers of other only partially public (부분공개) files that I could have tried looking up (perhaps there is some additional security mechanism protecting those files, in which case his trust is less remarkable). There was also an older software database access system you could look up files, also with a login required from the archivist. The intranet site and the older database entry system were both needed because of printing issues.

There were two problems I came across with printing: 1) Sometimes the orientation of the final print seemed completely random, no matter whether or not it was rotated properly on the screen or if you had indicated in the print options that you wanted landscape orientation. The result was sometimes wasted printouts (I wasn’t charged for these though) of horribly zoomed out files. 2) Sometimes the scanned images have huge margins. This means that printouts waste a lot of space which could have been used on a much more zoomed in version of the image. If you have the original TIFF you can crop and print without these huge margins, but within the intranet or database access system, this was not possible.

I was grateful to be able to view these Pusan documents without having to go to Pusan or request that physical copies be sent, and I only hope there is some similar system in Seoul whereby we can view the scanned images in their internal database and print what I needed.

The computers, including the archivist’s own machine, look shiny and new, but they moved at the pace of an old 486. This may have been a problem limited to today but it was frustrating to work with these archival document images on these horribly slow computers.

When I asked upon entry if I could take pictures of archival documents I was told, after some pause, as if he had never thought about it before, that I couldn’t (Rule #1 of Bureaucracy: Anything not explicitly permitted is to be denied permission if asked. Rule #1 of interacting with bureaucrats: Don’t stop to ask permission for things not explicitly banned) but I took pictures from their reference books in full view of the archivist without any comments from him. We are not supposed to bring writing utensils with us, but I took many notes with my pen and paper (and the archivist wrote on my paper with me using his pencil and my pen) without receiving any admonishment when over by the computers. There were no convenient outlets for laptops, but I plugged mine in behind the water dispenser (another interesting thing to have next to a table where people are looking at valuable archival documents) when the battery ran out.

When I was finished, the archivist tallied up my fees on a post-it note. 200 or 400 won for each file “pulled,” (including those digitally accessed) and 50 won for each page printed (or copied, had I gone that route). He handed me a list of totals, separated into one total for each separate request form filled out. To pay this amount you go down to the basement (like in many government offices in Korea and Japan) post office and ask for a collection of special stamps (수입인지) for each separate amount you were charged. Take this back to the archivist, he will attach it to your request form, stamp your copies with the seal of the archive, put them into a nice envelope and you can make your way home. Don’t forget to pick up your passport on the way out.


The Taejŏn office was almost completely empty, perhaps three other people there all day (one looking through colonial period land registries was asking for help in getting back some of his long lost family land). The very friendly archivist I worked with told me the Seoul office is more crowded and offers fewer services.

Unlike some archives I have been to, the archivists didn’t seem to have a lot of specialized knowledge of the holdings, but my archivist had excellent hanja knowledge and could read some of the older handwritten documents I was looking at with ease. I guess that is really the minimum to be expected of someone working at the historical archives but I have come to avoid assuming strong hanja abilities from even very highly educated Koreans.

Another frustrating part of the experience of searching for materials: The online search allows you to search file names, but I didn’t see a keyword system on the files I was working on. Also, strangely you cannot search by file number online, except on the protected intranet database the archivists have access to. I think this is a huge handicap. I discovered, through the archivist’s protected intranet, that files I had requested were “next to” dozens of other interesting files with less predictable file names having the same file number and “nearby” file numbers with related documents that also may not have turned up if I was only searching for certain keywords on the online search. There are some book indexes available in the archives (e.g. for presidential files, Cheju 4.3 documents, and some of the colonial period collections) but others, like the police files I was looking at from 1945-50, apparently did not. Thus I would only be able to investigate those files with the same file number or similar file numbers if I was lucky with my search terms. This complete inability to “browse” is for me a big issue, only overcome today, because my archivist allowed me to use his internal system.

I had a relatively easy time of it today, but most of it was thanks to a helpful, and relatively idle archivist on a slow day in Taejŏn and the overall casual atmosphere of the place. If the rules were more strictly enforced, or if I had not been given privileged access to the archivist’s internal database, I would have found only 25% of the materials I found today. I hope to report more on the Seoul branch in a future posting.

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