Varying tacks are employed to restore lost heritageTens of thousands of Korean cultural treasures are stored in foreign museums all over the world, and so far the Korean government has taken a decidedly diplomatic approach to negotiating their return.
But recent hard-line actions by other countries trying to bring back their own cultural relics have given ammunition to Korean activists pressuring the government to take a tougher stand.
Last October, Egypt cut ties with the Louvre museum in Paris to protest its possession of five painted Egyptian wall fragments. French officials argued the Louvre acquired the pieces in good faith, but Egyptians said they were stolen in the 1980s. Several conferences between the two countries, as well as archeological studies by the Louvre in Egypt, were suspended.
In December, the fragments were returned while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the French capital.
Elsewhere, Iran early last month severed ties with the British Museum over a dispute surrounding an ancient artifact called the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay document issued by the Persian ruler Cyrus in 539 B.C.
The museum had promised to lend Iran the cylinder for an exhibition in January, but reneged after antigovernment demonstrations in Iran that led to brutal police response and further political repression.
The BBC reported that the museum said “practicalities” delayed the loan. However, Hamid Baqaei, head of
Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, told Bloomberg News that the decision was political.
He said that he would send protest letters to the United Nations as well as to museums all around the world.
In addition, Iran now plans to ask Unesco to be compensated for the $200,000 it spent on tighter security in anticipation of the loan.
Greece has also had issues with the British Museum, objecting to its possession of the famous Parthenon statues.
The Earl of Elgin removed the marbles from Athens during the 19th century, with questionable permission from and possible payment to the then-ruling Ottoman Empire. Elgin’s actions caused controversy even at the time, and the legality of the British Museum’s possession remains hotly debated today.
Greece has demanded the statues’ return - at least on loan. Last year, the British Museum agreed to a loan to the Acropolis Museum, on the condition that Greece acknowledge the pieces remained the property of the London-based museum.
But Greece rejected the condition. Culture Minister Antonis Samaras told Bloomberg that such an acknowledgement would be “tantamount to legitimizing the snatching of the marbles and the carving up of the monument 207 years ago.”
Meanwhile, Israel and Russia are negotiating over a historic collection of books and Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts amassed by a Russian Jewish family in the 1840s.
On Feb. 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed Israel’s desire to retrieve the collection. Israeli officials recently told the Haaretz newspaper that thanks to improved relations between Jerusalem and Moscow, Russian officials will “positively consider” Israel’s request.
A quieter approach
Korea has been unable to recover the lion’s share of the 107,857 of its cultural relics now in the hands of other countries, with the largest number of treasures being in Japan. And Hwang Pyoung-woo, head of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, has blasted the government for being too gentle.
“[Other] countries have committed a sin [by taking our property]. So what’s the point of being polite to them?
“Our diplomats are supposed to fight for us,” Hwang said. “When other countries breach any kind of etiquette, we are too nice to say anything in response.”
Yang Chang-soo, director general of European affairs at the Foreign Ministry, bristled at the notion that the government isn’t doing its best, though he still couldn’t point to concrete results.
“Being loud isn’t always the answer,” said Yang, who since July 2008, when he was still deputy director general of European affairs, has been involved in negotiations with France for the return of 296 volumes of Korean royal protocols - the “Uigwe” - looted from a Joseon Dynasty library called Oegyujanggak in 1866 and now in the National Library of France.
“I don’t know what would constitute ‘strong’ but there have long been efforts at both the high level and working level [to try to bring back the texts]. We’re not being passive.”
Yang acknowledged Cultural Action’s efforts to achieve the identical goal, but said the government is trying to make sure the activists’ legal proceedings don’t affect official negotiations.
“We’re pressuring France to make the political decision for the sake of the two countries’ future relations,” he said.
“It’s really the only pending issue in our bilateral relations.”
And Yang says progress is being made.
“We have built the consensus that a quick resolution of this matter [returning the royal texts] is helpful to our ties,” he said.
Kim Joong-ho, the legal representative for Cultural Action, said he would fight to the end to secure the ancient volumes.
“Cultural pieces that have been acquired illegally cannot be French national properties,” Kim said. “The Oegyujanggak books have clearly been looted.
“Even the French government admitted as much.”
Kim continued, “The French point to international conventions and agreements that don’t apply retroactively. But the prescription doesn’t apply to war crimes, and the same goes for looted cultural properties.
“There may be a prescription in the political sense, but that doesn’t wipe out moral obligations.”
By Yoo Jee-ho [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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