[Viewpoint] Lost treasures

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[Viewpoint] Lost treasures

Park Byeong-seon has devoted her life to reviving interest in a forgotten national treasure since she went to France to study. In 1972, she proved that Jikjisimgyeong, which is kept in the National Library of France, was the world’s oldest extant movable metal print book.

It predates Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible by 78 years.

In 1979, she made a dramatic discovery of the books from the Oegyujanggak archive, an annex of the royal library of the Joseon Dynasty, in a storage section of the National Library of France. She spent over 10 years studying and classifying them. The bibliographic specialist is now fighting terminal cancer.

What can we do for someone who devoted her entire life to the history of Korea? Should we help her with the hospital bill?

The more significant help would be bringing back the stolen Oegyujanggak books to Korea.

In 1886, French forces invaded Ganghwa Island and looted the Oegyujanggak books. In order to retrieve the stolen treasure, Park turned down offers to become a university professor and a librarian at the National Library of France. The displaced texts, known as Uigwe, record the protocols and rituals from the early Joseon Dynasty. They also supply lists for major national events such as ancestor worship services, weddings, receptions for foreign guests and funerals with diagrams of procedures.

Because the bindings were beautiful and elaborate, and the books contained interesting content, French soldiers looted the Uigwe collection.

When French President Francois Mitterrand visited Korea in 1993 for a summit with President Kim Young-sam, he brought a volume from the Uigwe. So eager was he to sell TGV high-speed train technology to Korea, the French government acted as if it were willing to return all the Oegyujanggak books when the contract was signed.

However, instead of retrieving the treasures, Korea would have to borrow the books from France and loan another treasure of similar value to France as the French government was reluctant to give up the treasure due to opposition from library employees.

Similarly, the British Museum has a vast collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. The works are known collectively as the Elgin Marbles. The early 19th century British diplomat Earl of Elgin removed the pieces from Greece. The Greek government has demanded the British government return the sculptures a number of times, but to no avail.

One of the arguments for keeping them in London was that Greece did not have a location to properly store and display the marbles. So Greece constructed a new Acropolis Museum, which opened this year. It’s located right under the Parthenon and it contains an empty gallery saved for the related treasures to be displayed. It was a strong message to the British.

So what message should Korea send to France? Should we build a space to store Uigwe on Ganghwa Island? Korea can send a firm message by compiling a complete translation of Uigwe. We need to prove that what might seem like picture books are valid records of Korea’s history. However, the efforts to translate Uigwe have been very limited since these books contain the “spirit of recording” of the Joseon Dynasty.

The Uigwe collection, which was designated as a “Memory of the World” in 2007 by Unesco, is made up of 833 volumes. If we eliminate the duplicates, there are 606 unique volumes surviving today. Yet only 20 volumes, 3.3 percent of the collection, have been translated. At this rate, we cannot convey what the Uigwe books mean to Koreans. Moreover, the government needs to file a formal suit for returning the treasure. Civilian activists have filed a suit against the French government, but the case only confirms that the Korean government should take action.

The next ambassador to France should be someone who is willing to put everything into retrieving the Oegyujanggak books. Instead of fighting over the Sejong City project, politicians need to work together to bring home national treasures.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Chung Jin-hong
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