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Seoul appeals to Paris for copies of Joseon books

July 05,2005
In 1866, the French invaded Korea and carted away nearly 300 books from the royal archive of the Joseon Dynasty. Seoul, which has been unable to convince cultural authorities in Paris to return the books, has now asked for access to the materials so that they can be digitally photographed and used for research purposes.
The books contain records of the royal families’ diplomatic affairs and explain in detail the preparations and code of conduct for official events, as well as the costs involved.
A total of 297 books were seized by the French military from the royal archive on Ganghwa Island when the French launched an attack in retaliation for the execution of French missionaries by Joseon authorities. The books in question are currently in the possession of the French national library in Paris.
Seoul made its request to make copies of the records last month, and a government official said yesterday that the request is a separate issue from the country’s efforts to retrieve the records. The French have not officially responded to the request, South Korea officials say.
“They [the French] are currently consulting over the issue. The initial reaction by the French Foreign Ministry was positive. We don’t know the reaction of the national library yet,” a government official said yesterday. “Our negotiations regarding the return of the books will continue as well.”
The government official added that a return of the books is a complex issue because doing so could act as a catalyst for other countries seeking the return of foreign cultural assets in France.
In a bid to recover the books, Seoul made an official request in 1992 asking for the return of the books, and in 2001 both sides reached a tentative agreement under which France would permanently lend the books to South Korea in exchange for equally important ancient Korean texts. Nevertheless, an accord never materialized due to public outrage.


by Brian Lee


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