[FOUNTAIN]Pillage, theft are difficult to sort out

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[FOUNTAIN]Pillage, theft are difficult to sort out

When Hirobumi Ito reigned as the resident-general during the short-lived Daehan Empire, King Gojong visited the museum at Changdeok Palace. When he saw Goryeo celadons, he asked Ito where they were made. Ito answered that they were made during the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. But Gojong said such pottery was not from Korea, and Ito had to subside.
Even the emperor of Joseon was unaware of the existence of Goryeo celadon. The unique jade-green pottery had disappeared more than five centuries earlier. In the Confucian tradition, excavating tombs was a crime that “furies both the heaven and the people.” So the celadon potteries from the Goryeo period had been perfectly preserved. It was only after Japan won the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 that the underground treasures began to be dug up. The excavation specialists flocked to the Goryeo Dynasty’s capital of Gaeseong and to Ganghwa Island, which had been an interim capital during the Mongolian invasion.
Most customers for the Goryeo treasures were rich senior Japanese officials in Korea. The biggest customer of all was Resident-General Ito. Hundreds of grave robbers landed at Incheon in a search for treasure. During Ito’s two-year term, the tombs and graves of most Goryeo aristocrats were violated. Having secretly hoarded thousands of pottery pieces to present to other Japanese leaders, Ito had to hold his tongue in front of Gojong.
In 1966, a year after the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan, over 1,000 potteries and ancient scripts were returned to Korea, but they were only a fraction of the booty, and the return did not include privately owned items. Even today, some of the best Goryeo treasures remain in Japan. The essence of Goryeo pottery can be found in particular at the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art.
Pillage has been a part of the history of imperialism. In the West, the Elgin Marbles, currently on display at the British Museum, are the best-known example. In 1810, the British diplomat Lord Elgin shipped a collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Greece. Greece has demanded their return, to no avail so far.
A Korean shaman stole a Buddhist painting from the Goryeo Dynasty from Japan. A Japan-based Korean artist appealed for its return. Now what?


by Oh Byung-sang

The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.
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