Ancient books to remain in France

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Ancient books to remain in France


In the photo above left, taken during their 1993 summit in Seoul, Korean President Kim Young-sam, right, accepts a volume of the “Uigwe,” shown above right, from French President Francois Mitterrand. [JoongAng Ilbo]

A Korean civic cultural organization is crying foul over a recent French court’s ruling that Korea cannot recover its 19th-century books from the National Library of France.

According to the Seoul-based organization Cultural Action, a French administrative court dismissed its lawsuit demanding that they be allowed to retrieve the books, known as the “Uigwe” (Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty), which were once stored in a royal library on Ganghwa Island during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Hwang Pyoung-woo of Cultural Action said the court on Dec. 24 ruled that since the books are in the possession of the National Library of France, they remain French properties, and the method by which the books were acquired has no bearing on that fact.

Historians say France looted the library in 1866 but that it wasn’t until 1975 that Korea learned the books were in France’s possession. Park Byeong-seon, a Korean historian, found the titles while working at the French national library.

According to Cultural Action, the French court said in its ruling that international law prohibiting looting had not been established in the late 19th century. Hwang said he and his legal advisers are considering an appeal.

France decided recently to return Egyptian relics that had allegedly been stolen after Egypt cut ties with the Louvre museum. One of five painted wall fragments was sent back to Egypt in December.

Zawi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities who led the campaign to retrieve the country’s relics, had said ties would not be restored until all stolen pieces were returned.

Under the 1995 convention by the UN International Institute for the Unification of Private Law on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, nations are required to return cultural artifacts to their countries of origin if those items have been stolen or removed illegally. The convention also states that the nations currently in possession of the artifacts should be compensated for returning them, assuming the government had no knowledge that the objects were acquired illegally.

This is not the first time Korea has tried to retrieve the ancient books. During a 1993 summit, then Korean President Kim Young-sam and his French counterpart Francois Mitterrand reached an agreement in which Korea would import technology for the TGV high-speed train from France and Korea would be allowed to borrow the books and other treasures. But the books have yet to leave France.

By Yoo Jee-ho []
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