Winning back stolen culture

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Winning back stolen culture

A French administrative court last month ruled against a Korean civic group’s plea for the return of royal historical texts seized by French troops during an invasion in the 19th century. The court argued that the 296 books taken by French Navy troops from Oekyujanggak, a royal archive on Ganghwa Island off of Korea’s west coast, are now “national property” and cannot be returned. The books, which are known as “Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty,” are now housed at the National Library of France.

But the French aren’t the only ones in possession of stolen Korean property.

The Asahi Shimbun reported that the Japanese Imperial Household Agency is in possession of hundreds of documents and books once held by the royal courts of the Joseon Dynasty, citing findings by Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration. The Imperial Household Agency is currently holding the Royal Protocols from the Joseon Dynasty as well as books on court medicine, customs, military history and lectures.

Sadly, the Asahi report is nothing new.

Nine years ago, the Korea Bibliography Association had already filed a list of 636 collections of 4,678 books held at the imperial agency. They include texts from the Royal Protocols, detailed records of royal ceremonial events, and 17 medical books.

According to a recent survey by the Cultural Heritage Administration, a total of 107,857 Korean historic properties are scattered over 18 countries. Japan holds the largest number with 61,409 items, followed by the United States with 27,726 items. Some items, such as Uigwe, were confiscated by foreign invaders while others fell into the hands of collectors through trade.

Japan’s collection of Korean properties is especially upsetting because, in addition to having taken away our sovereignty through forced colonial rule, Japan has also taken our cultural properties.

Uigwe contains, among other things, a record of the funeral of Empress Myeongseong. It was declared a piece of World Cultural Heritage in 2007. Some of the Royal Protocols were handed over as a “gift” to the imperial agency by the Japanese government-general in Korea in 1922.

These and other assets should be returned. The National Assembly in 2006 adopted a resolution demanding the repatriation of the royal records. The legislature is expected to repeat the call.

Japan has an opportunity to help bring Korea-Japan ties to another level during the anniversary of Japan’s forced annexation of Korea (1910-1945). But it must start by returning valuable Korean assets.

We sincerely hope Japan won’t follow France and find excuses to avoid doing the right thing.
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