Cool judgment is neededA year has passed since a Korean crime syndicate broke into temples in Tsushima, Nagasaki, and smuggled two Buddha statues of national treasure status through Busan’s port. Both of them have Korean origins. One of them - the 14th century bronze seated statue of the Bodhisattva - is believed to have originated from Buseok Temple in Korea. The news stirred up a hornet’s nest. Some question if the stolen property came from Kannonji Temple in Nagasaki or is even authentic. Rumors will likely just snowball as time progresses.
Everything about the incident seems wrong. The thieves brought the relics through Busan Port and safely smuggled them into the country, but appraisers for cultural properties must examine and evaluate every antique and artwork during customs clearances. It is a regulation that is supposed to prevent the illicit trade of valuable cultural assets. If the appraisers suspected that the statues were stolen property, the thieves should have been arrested on the spot. If the stolen property was immediately returned to the source, we probably would not find ourselves in today’s awkward situation. The thieves deceived the auditors by disguising the two pieces as replicas bought from an antique store. But Korean authorities should toughen customs supervision in the future.
The residents of Tsushima, an island only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Busan, are eagerly awaiting the return of the treasures. Some extremists are campaigning for drastic action. The island district, which has traditionally played a mediator between Korea and Japan due to its geographic location, has cut off all cultural exchanges and ties with Korea, canceling a Korean delegation, a ritual ceremony for delivering a Joseon court letter and a street performance by a dance troupe from Busan. Some restaurants bluntly hung “No Koreans Welcome” signs in their entrances.
The mayor and representatives of Tsushima recently visited the Korean embassy in Tokyo and filed a petition demanding the quick repatriation of the statues. It made news not only in the two countries, but also in other parts of the world. Thieves sneaked into the temples in the middle of the night by cutting holes in the roof and then stole priceless relics. The artifacts were smuggled into Korea. The thieves were caught and the stolen goods confiscated, but so far they have not been returned to their owners. Can we still claim to be a law-abiding, democratic, culturally refined nation of decency and manners before a global audience?
We cannot deny the two statues were stolen from temples in Tsushima. There are more than 134 Korean Buddhist statues and works of art preserved in Tsushima. Some were given to temples and others were found by archeologists. Overall, there is no evidence that these Buddhist artworks were purchased or donated. However, there is also no evidence that they were looted and stolen from Korea. They have survived that long.
From the apparent facts, customs and laws, we cannot claim sovereignty of these stolen properties. Cool judgment is necessary in exchanges among countries. We must consider the ramifications on future bilateral ties and the repatriation of bigger cultural assets from Japan. The statues that were returned to the homeland through theft should be sent back according to international custom. We must not forget the support and cooperation from Tsushima residents in establishing the 10 monuments and statues that commemorate Korean historical events and figures on the island, including Choi Ik-hyeon, the independence activist who died on the island during exile, and Silla Court delegate Park Jae-sang.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor and the director of the Seok Ju-seon Memorial Museum at Dankook University.
By Chung Young-ho