Group will appeal ruling to keep looted books in France

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Group will appeal ruling to keep looted books in France

A Korean civic group said last week that it will appeal a French court’s decision to reject a request for the return of royal texts taken by French troops during a 19th-century invasion.

The group, known as Cultural Action, said it decided to file the appeal later last week over the Dec. 24 ruling by the administrative court in Paris that found that 296 historic Korean royal books at the National Library of France were “national property” and could not be returned to Korea.

“We are filing an appeal because not doing so would only mean that we are accepting the wrong judgment of the French court,” said Hwang Pyung-woo, a cultural property head with the organization.

The collection chronicles most of the royal history of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and was stored in an archive called Oegyujanggak on Ganghwa Island off Korea’s west coast. French troops invaded the island in 1866, and during their withdrawal took the texts from the archive, which held about 1,000 books. The rest were destroyed in a fire set by the troops.

Probably unaware of their origin, the National Library in Paris had classified them under its Chinese index until they were rediscovered by a Korean historian living in France, Park Byeong-seon, in 1978.

In government-level negotiations over the past decade, France agreed to lease the collection on a “long-term and regular basis” to Korea for display. But the accord never materialized due to differences on the form of the exhibit and calls from Korea that they be repatriated, not leased.

France has digitalized the collection for online reading and given a digital edition to South Korea.

In the December ruling, the French court said the books have been public material in France over the past 140 years, and the circumstances of their acquisition do not change that status.

The court also asserted that international rules banning pillaging were not in place in the late 19th century.

The civic group argues that the French claim to the books’ public status is absurd because no one even knew of their existence until the Korean historian discovered them and that they had been wrongfully classified as Chinese.

Cultural Action has also criticized the Korean government’s low-profile approach, demanding a permanent lease rather than repatriation, contrasting it with Egypt’s hard-line stance that led to the recent handover of several looted tomb paintings from the Louvre Museum.

“The government’s idea is to have them displayed in Korea, but their ownership will still remain in France. We believe that the wrong history cannot be corrected until the ownership is returned,” Hwang said. Yonhap
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