Repatriate and redeem

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Repatriate and redeem

The return of books kept in the 19th-century Joseon Dynasty royal library called Oegyujanggak is widely recognized as the biggest diplomatic issue that Korea and France face. At last, the two nations seem to be making some progress on this issue. In 1993, the leaders at the time, French President Francois Mitterrand and Korean President Kim Young-sam, agreed in principle that those books should be returned.

Yet the issues still remain a problem 17 years later. Despite the agreement between the two national leaders, negotiations were deadlocked due to strong resistance from the National Library of France. Since then, several rounds of negotiations have failed to yield any tangible results. Amid this atmosphere, Jack Lang, former French culture minister, recently made a series of remarks that Korea and France will reach a desirable outcome, and the situation is changing quickly. The Korean government submitted a diplomatic document to the French government requesting the return of the aforementioned books in the form of a permanent loan early this month. Some people are rushing to conclude that the Oegyujanggak books will be returned within this year. The process may reveal huge problems that are still unresolved, as we have had many complications. However, we welcome the chance to put this trouble behind us at last.

The French military led by Adm. Pierre-Gustave Roze unlawfully looted the library during the French invasion of Ganghwa Island, Korea, in 1866. The French government and courts even recognized this was looting at a trial held last January. Nevertheless, the French court ruled that France still has sole ownership of the Oegyujanggak volumes. France looted countless foreign cultural properties during its imperialist era. It still possesses many of them. The court may have been concerned about a series of lawsuits if the Oegyujanggak volumes were to be returned. However, this attitude is inconsistent with France’s picture of itself as a great cultural power. Its reluctance to correct its mistakes because of pragmatic difficulties is unbecoming and narrow-minded.

A Koran civic group seeking the permanent return of the royal texts filed the lawsuit with the French court. That same group recently criticized the Korean government harshly for its decision to accept a permanent loan of the books. It insists that it would be nonsense to get back our looted cultural property in the form of a “loan.” The group has insisted that the Korean government proudly demand the return of our cultural property, based on the example of the British return of some 25,000 objects to Egypt, and the United States’ return of prized cultural properties and a stolen letter by famed philosopher Rene Descartes to Italy and France, respectively.

We feel the same way as the civic group. However, we also think that it is of great importance to drive forward the early return of the Oegyujanggak volumes in the form of a permanent loan at the same time.

This is because it is first and foremost imperative we secure the physical return of the looted property. To make that happen, we must consider all viable options. After all, this is not our final battle. Countless Korean properties remain scattered across the world, in Japan and Western countries, all awaiting return to their homeland.

Li Jine-mieung, professor of Korean history at Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University in France, said three marble plates and a book made of jade apparently stolen from the Korean royal library are still inside the French National Library. The Korean government should take steps to secure the return of these cultural properties as well as the Oegyujanggak volumes.

The French government needs to take into consideration the profound sense of betrayal the Korean people may be experiencing due to the violation of the 1993 pledge by President Mitterrand. It should take swift action to implement the return of Korea’s looted cultural properties - the Oegyujanggak volumes and the newly-discovered documents - if it wishes to show itself a truly great cultural power.
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