Strike a bargain with the French

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Strike a bargain with the French

Practicality should come before justice when it comes to diplomacy. A preoccupation with formalities and language can derail a pragmatic outcome.

To be overly pragmatic, of course, can be criticized as being cynical. And it is important to be both reasonable and assertive when dealing with foreign policy.

But that’s easier to say than to do, as there is always another party across the negotiating table.

Efforts to retrieve the ancient royal archives called Oegyujanggak, stolen by French troops in 1866, from the National Library of France are a good example of the conflict between practicality and historical justice.

One side claims it is essential to bring home the precious documents no matter what it takes, while the other side demands repatriation should be done in a proper and dignified form. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s better to be practical.

We will never get back the historic Joseon Dynasty relics if we argue over principles while the French stubbornly refuse to hand them over fearing a domino effect of similar demands over stolen cultural assets from other countries.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be holding a tete-a-tete with President Lee Myung-bak when he arrives for the Group of 20 Summit in November. That is a good opportunity to settle the issue that has been bothering the two countries for the last 17 years.

France proposes to hand over the relics on a lease with the option of extension. The assets can be rented out for three to five years, which will be automatically extended over and over - basically forever.

We may not be happy about the “facade” of the compromise. The documents were stolen from the royal court by the French navy. Renting what actually belongs to us sounds absurd, especially since the French can demand back the relics. It is the French who broke their promise to hand over the documents in return for Korea picking TGV for its high-speed railway project.

But France’s dilemma is understandable. Its prized museums and art galleries are filled with assets confiscated during their imperial days. The two countries should meet in the middle so that the problem can be solved without anyone losing face.
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