China seeks help in finding murals

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China seeks help in finding murals

China has asked Seoul to help find ancient mural paintings plundered a decade ago, saying the paintings are now likely in South Korea, the heritage administration said yesterday.

The Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea said its Chinese counterpart, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, recently sent a letter saying the mural paintings, stolen from an ancient tomb in the city of Jian in Jilin Province in the late 1990s, are believed to have been taken to Korea.

The paintings date to the Koguryo Kingdom that controlled the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and northeastern China during its reign from 37 B.C. to 668 A.D. Its people left paintings on the walls and ceilings of tombs depicting their daily lives and mythical beliefs. Those rare relics that now belong to North Korea and China have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

China reportedly arrested and executed three Korean-Chinese citizens in 2003 on charges of stealing several Koguryo mural paintings in Jian and selling them to a South Korean surnamed Lee.

In the letter, the Chinese authorities said the convicts consistently said that the mural paintings had been passed on to South Korea. The letter did not identify the route of their illegal transfer nor present any direct evidence. It only cited an investigative program recently aired by South Korean broadcaster MBC, which suggested possible connections between the plunderers and the Korean Antiques’ Association, a private antique dealer in Seoul.

“The letter mainly states that China asks for the South Korean government’s cooperation in its efforts to retrieve the cultural properties,” the Korean heritage agency said.

The agency said the paintings had not been located. It is considering asking authorities to start a search.

“China is not asking for the return of the relics. That is not possible because nobody knows for sure whether they are now in China or South Korea. To file such a request officially, the channel would have to be the foreign ministry,” said Yi Kyung-hoon, director of the international exchange division at the Korean heritage agency.

Kim Jong-choon, president of the Korean Antiques’ Association, flatly denied China’s claim.

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