Cultured Kimchi: Protections for Foodstuffs through UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Timothy Chung

It’s a good time to be a kimchi-eater. Over the last decade, kimchi has been touted as a Korean superfood and generous bestower of longevity.[1] In 2013, the spicy and deliciously pungent fermented cabbage also attained international recognition when South Korea’s tradition of kimchi-making—gimjang (김장)—made UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage ("the List").[2] In doing so, kimchi was elevated from stinky peasant food to a cultural asset deserving of celebration and protection by the international community—the same honors and protections that were given to the French gastronomic meal when it made the List three years prior.[3]  

What honors and protections you ask? For one, List recognition means that the element in question is deemed a vital cultural asset of a community, and worth preserving and celebrating on a national, if not international, scale. Article Two of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (the Convention) defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.”[4] Cultural elements that make it to the List, like gimjang, qualify for safeguarding protection measures through the Convention and the States Parties. Such measures include “identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage.”[5]

In the absence of significant intellectual property protections for foodstuffs, recognition as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage could be another avenue for securing some kind of protection for gastronomic creations and traditions. While food generally does not qualify for copyright protection, culinary traditions that make the List would qualify for national safeguard protections, including preservation, education, and promotion programs, resources, and initiatives. In other words, resources could be channeled to ensure that the tradition—and therefore the foodstuff—endures and propagates. Such is the case with gimjang and kimchi in South Korea, although it is probably doubtful whether kimchi was ever in any danger of disappearing from the Korean peninsula.

That being said, one way an overzealous ministry of culture or food activists might capitalize on kimchi and gimjang’s status as intangible cultural heritage might be to discourage or curb practices that might dilute the tradition. It seems unthinkable that a nation might pass laws and regulations concerning the proper way to scrub down or season leaves of cabbage. However, a hypothetical culture minister weary of watching foreign nationals botch their attempts at creating at home kimchi might seek to divert more resources into education and promotion, perhaps even enlisting international assistance per Articles 22 and 23 of the Convention. Such things are within the scope of the safeguarding measures provided by the Convention, and might be effective ways of providing some degree of pseudo-legal protections for culinary traditions and foodstuffs.

Unfortunately for Americans though, the US is not a signatory to the Convention and therefore no American cultural practices, traditions, or assets are currently recognized as List elements worth safeguarding. So, bummer.


[1] Alethea Tan, The Korean Superfood: Kimchi and Its Health Benefits, Michelin Guide (October 6, 2017)

[2] Kimjang, making and sharing kimchi in the Republic of Korea, UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage,

[3] Jefferson T. Iverson, Will World Heritage Status Be Good for French Food?, Time (November 19, 2010),8599,2032377,00.html.

[4] Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Paris, 17 October 2003, United Nations Treaty Series, vo. 2368, No. 42671, 35, 36.

[5] Id. at 37.