Loot puts minister on a hot seat

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Loot puts minister on a hot seat

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Seated Bodhisattva made during the Goryeo period

A recent remark by Korea’s culture minister, that two Buddhist statues of Korean origin stolen by Korean thieves from Japanese temples last year should be returned to Japan, is stirring up controversy.

A year ago, a Korean theft ring of seven people stole two sculptures from the temples where they were on display in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture with the intent to sell them in Korea. They were arrested upon their return to Korea.

One statue is a standing Buddha, created in the eighth century during Korea’s Silla period, and the other is of a seated Bodhisattva made in the 14th century during the Goryeo period. It is unclear how the two works ended up in Japan, but most Koreans speculate they were stolen by the Japanese either during its numerous invasion attempts or during the colonial period of 1910-45, as was the case with tens of thousands of Korean cultural properties now in Japan.

The provenance of the latter statue is clearer from historical records. It was created and held by Korea’s Buseok Temple in Seosan, South Chungcheong, until the 1370s. For that reason, a district court in February approved an injunction request filed by the Korean temple to bar its return until it is established how the statue ended up in Japan. That ruling led to both the statues being put in government custody until the facts could be determined.

On Saturday, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported that Korea’s culture minister, Yoo Jin-ryong, told the newspaper that he believed the two statues should be returned to Japan.

“While I am obliged to wait for the judiciary’s decision,” he was quoted as saying, “I naturally believe that it should be returned if rational thought is given to the matter.”

The paper also reported that Yoo had first made such remarks to Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s culture minister, a day earlier. That meeting came just before a meeting of the culture ministers of Korea, Japan and China in Gwangju on Saturday.

The report stirred up a hornet’s nest here; critics lambasted the minister, asking how he could have defended the return of a stolen artifact. He had his defenders, though, who argued that an earlier theft did not justify burglary to return them here.

The Culture Ministry stood behind its minister. In a statement to the Korean media, a spokesman said, “Yoo was just saying that it is only rational that a stolen cultural property must be returned.”

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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