[FORUM]A Farmer's Love of the History of Korea

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[FORUM]A Farmer's Love of the History of Korea

Kim Byeong-ho is not a wealthy man. He earns a living for six family members, including his elderly mother and his ill wife, by raising red peppers and cabbages on a 3,300-square-meter field in Seo-myeon, Yeongwol-gun, Gangwon province.

He does not have much formal learning. He has only an elementary-school education. He also has a physical handicap: he has no feeling along the entire length of one of his legs.

The situation turned worse for him in May. He was leveling the ground on a section of his cabbage farm to build a temple when he discovered 60 small granite sculptures of Arhant, one of Buddha's disciples who attained nirvana. He reported the find to the relevant authorities.

Excavation work was begun, lasting four months, during which an additional 230 sculptures of Arhant, presumed to be part of a set of 500, and the remains of a temple were discovered. Because of the find, Mr. Kim could not plow his farmland.

These must be difficult times for Mr. Kim, rougher than 20 years ago when he decided to leave a strenuous job in the city and return to his hometown. He farmed enough land to support his family, working not only on his own land but also working as a tenant farmer on other plots.

Mr. Kim is still diligent. When he is not farming, he makes and sells handicraft items such as straw sandals.

A 1,100-square-meter plot where the statues were excavated was formally designated as a cultural relics excavation site. The market value of the land is about 7 million won ($5,385). In addition, Mr. Kim spent 10 times more than the land price on building an access road to the field. But he decided to donate the land to the nation. He will soon present his written consent to the contribution, without receiving any compensation for the cabbage harvest that he will forgo or for the value of the land and improvements.

There have been 208 donors of cultural assets until now and over 10,000 objects have been donated, but this is the first donation of land where relics were excavated.

If a land is designated as a historical site, the owner will still be allowed to sell the land, but will be banned from developing it, so in practice it would be difficult for the owner to exercise his property rights to the land. So when land owners happen to discover relics, most of them hurriedly rebury them. They take all possible steps to prevent their land from being designated a historical site. If they cannot prevent that designation, they demand that the national government buy the land from them.

But Mr. Kim did not do so. His only condition for the contribution is that the government should restore the temple in which the Arhant sculptures had been enshrined and preserve the sculptures well. It will not be easy for a farmer who has no other assets to donate farmland, the source of income for his family. Mr. Kim's answer to that problem was simple.

"The Arhant sculptures should be well preserved, as they must have been found because of karma. If people from other countries come after I die to see the site where the Arhants were unearthed, that will be good enough for me."

According to Ji Hyeon-byeong, a research fellow at Gangwon Research Institute of Cultural Properties, the Arhant sculptures unearthed from Mr. Kim's farm were buried there when a temple in which 500 Arhant sculptures were enshrined was destroyed by fire. Therefore, the sculptures are entire, unlike other sculptures found in Naju, South Jeolla province, which were all decapitated and thrown away.

The sculptures were done in the early period of the Joseon Dynasty. They are elaborate works, and show varied shapes and carving techniques. Therefore, the sculptures have great value in the art history of Korea.

But the sculptures had become so weak under the weight of the earth covering them that they were beginning to crumble. Quick measures for preservation were called for.

Mr. Kim really loves the Arhant sculptures. He showed generosity displayed only by those who know what love is. This autumn, a country man's love of cultural assets is penetrating our hearts.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Hong Eun-hee

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