More than treasure lies beneath a historical trove of Korean art

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More than treasure lies beneath a historical trove of Korean art


A total of 296 “Uigwe,” the ancient books that dictate the protocols of royal ceremonies and rites of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), are currently kept at the National Library of France. [JoongAng Ilbo Archive]

For much of its tumultuous history, Korea was invaded by stronger nations. Time after time, dating back to the fifth century, invaders ravaged the helpless country and none went home without spoils: They carted off cultural treasures ranging from texts from royal libraries to paintings and sculptures.

And so we come to the present, after the fall of imperialism. Korea, no longer a punching bag, is among a handful of countries trying to retrieve the pieces of its lost heritage.

Or is it?

Activists in Korea argue the government isn’t trying hard enough. And indeed, the government at best has tiptoed around the issue. Officials have said bringing back one treasure from one country would be akin to opening a can of worms that would force them to negotiate with other countries over other properties, and inevitably lead to diplomatic headaches.

Looted relics

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration in Korea, 107,857 pieces of Korean cultural properties were scattered throughout 18 countries as of the end of last year. Of these, more than 61,000 - by far the most - were in Japan, followed by about 27,000 in the United States and almost 4,000 in China.

Only about 7,500 of the looted pieces have been returned to date.

So Korea’s lawmakers are taking the initiative - after some prodding, on some of the items. Last Thursday, the National Assembly unanimously passed a motion demanding Japan return “Uigwe,” or “The Royal Protocols from the Joseon Dynasty.” The lawmakers’ motion also asks the Korean government to be more forthright in their negotiations with Japan.

The lawmakers took their action after a face-to-face meeting in Seoul on Feb. 11 between Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and his Japanese counterpart, Katsuya Okada.

In the buildup to their encounter, Korean media had speculated that Seoul would ask Japan to return Uigwe. But both foreign ministries played down speculation and neither Yu nor Okada discussed it in their joint press conference following their meeting.

Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun later said Yu had raised the issue but it wasn’t an official item on the agenda. Kim also declined to elaborate on Okada’s reaction.

Legal labyrinth

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, and retrieving the Uigwe would be a significant and symbolic event.

But determining who has the rights - legal and natural - to the relics is a complicated question.

Forty-five years ago, Korea renounced its claim to the cultural properties under the terms of the Treaty on Basic Relations. Japan, in a move hailed by activists as a “courageous decision,” has sent back some pieces as donations. But since that time, Korean officials have cited the treaty as a reason to tread lightly when seeking the return of Korea’s treasures.

While Korea-Japan relations have been and remain a sensitive subject, where cultural relics are concerned, it’s France that’s the new sticking point.

Last Wednesday, a civic group called Cultural Action appealed a French court’s rejection of its request for the return of royal texts from the 19th century. The 296 volumes in question belonged to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) library called Oegyujanggak, which Korean historians say was looted by the French military 1866.

Korea didn’t learn the manuscripts were in French possession until 1975. They were discovered by Park Byeong-seon, a Korean historian then working at the National Library of France. She found them classified under the Chinese index.

In the December ruling, the French court determined that the books belong to France because they have been in the national library for more than a century. The court said how they were acquired has no bearing on that fact.

Cultural Action has called for full ownership transfer of the texts, but the government - trying hard not to strain bilateral relations - is working to acquire the books on “permanent lease,” under which Korea would borrow the books and allow the French museum to display other Korean artifacts in return. The official request for the lease will be filed in the near future, the Foreign Ministry said last week.

A sensitive matter

So sensitive is this matter considered at the Foreign Ministry that some officials declined to speak on record about the royal books in France.

At issue seems to be the fear that one such return would set a precedent that could trigger a domino effect by which former imperialist nations would be challenged for possession of treasures taken from weaker nations.

“If we only considered Oegyujanggak volumes, then we could speed up our negotiations,” the official said. “But it could have an adverse impact on negotiations with other countries for the return of other pieces.

“We completely understand that activists would like to see the prompt return of the books,” he added. “But we need to take our time and be as prepared as we can.”

There has been some misunderstanding about a deal between France and Korea. During their summit meeting in 1993, Korean President Kim Young-sam and his French counterpart, Francois Mitterrand, reached an understanding by which Korea would import the TGV high-speed train technology from France in exchange for France returning the Uigwe on a loan basis. However, before the Uigwe would be returned, Korea would have to lend France books of equal value.

While the train deal went through, 17 years later only one book has changed hands, and the Koreans are still asking France to honor its part of the bargain. The unkept-deal has in fact been folded into new negotiations with the French government to retrieve the Uigwe.

A single book was given to Korea by Mitterrand, and the Korean public has been led to believe that Mitterrand reneged on a promise. However, multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that France never made any guarantees because the agreement never called for an unconditional return.

What further stymies the government is that there are no legal grounds on which to prod France. There are two existing conventions on cultural objects, but neither can be applied retroactively.

Under the the UN International Institute for the Unification of Private Law’s 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, nations are required to return looted cultural artifacts, but only if those items were removed illegally after 1995, and with compensation for their return, if the government had no knowledge that the objects were acquired illegally.

A 1970 Unesco convention says that cultural artifacts stolen or illegally imported must be returned to the original nation, but that only applies to items that have changed hands since 1970.

The Korean government feels its hands are tied. The activists disagree.

Hwang Pyoung-woo, head of Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, said Korea should cooperate with other nations whose properties had been looted and draw international attention to their causes.

“Korea could launch an international coalition of countries who have lost their cultural heritage,” said Hwang. “If we can team up with China, I think we can make some headway. But we’re sitting back.”

By Yoo Jee-ho []
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