Only if they got it legallyThe first meeting of the South Korean and Japanese culture ministers since the launch of the Shinzo Abe government in Japan ended in ill feelings due to an argument over a Buddhist statue of Korean origin stolen from a Japanese temple. I want to raise awareness of the potential significance of the issue. It is a rare case, even internationally, that a cultural property that could have been plundered from one country centuries ago is returned home by a gang of thieves, even if in advertently.
Under international conventions, illegally-secured cultural properties must be returned to the country of origin, at least in principle. But, in reality, it is usually a lengthy and difficult process to reacquire cultural assets that fell into foreign hands.
It took two decades of rigorous diplomatic efforts and persuasion to bring back a collection of royal documents considered national treasures that had been stolen by the French navy during an invasion in 1866, despite the obvious illegality of the action committed by the French. The French government demanded Seoul replace it with a treasure of equal value.
After long, hard diplomatic talks, Japan in 2010 agreed in principle to return royal books and texts about royal court rituals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) that the Japanese colonial government took in violation of local laws and regulations. The treasures - clandestinely excavated from a couple of tombs in Yangsan by the Japanese Government-General in 1920, which were then arbitrarily donated to the Tokyo National Museum - have yet to be returned. It takes decades and years of tough diplomatic endeavors to recover national treasures and artifacts taken through illicit means.
Cultural properties are no different in the need to prove illegality to claim ownership. But the mood changed in early 2000. In order to fight the trafficking of cultural assets, the United States and European countries advise museums and galleries to investigate, record and share information on the origin of their art and artifacts. The practice was initially to help protect the original owners of artifacts and artworks seized during the Nazi period but has become a widespread norm and ethical obligation among museums around the world.
I support the local court decision to ban the return of the 14th-century bronze Buddhist statue, which appears to have been made at Buseok Temple, South Chungcheong, in the 1330s, where it was kept by the temple until the 1370s. The Japanese temple needs to prove it acquired the statue through legal procedures in accordance with recent international practice.
The Japanese government, though, has a higher ethical duty than museums, so it should explain how the statue ended up in the Nagasaki temple before demanding repatriation. Some worry that emotional attachment to the Buseok Temple statue could affect the government and civilian campaign to repatriate displaced cultural properties.
Korea has nearly 150,000 cultural properties located outside the country, of which 44 percent are in Japan. Repatriation of the statue touches on a much bigger problem. It reminds us of other priceless cultural treasures looted and stolen by the Japanese a hundred years ago. The handling of the statue could set a precedent for other assets of Korean origin that are in Japan. Japan may be sensitive about the issue, in fear of aggressive claims over ancient Korean properties in Japan.
The Buseok Temple statue can provide a critical turning point in our efforts to repatriate our cultural assets. If we return it, we can never enforce our ownership of stolen cultural property. Japan won’t likely agree to discuss issues related to historical relics in the future.
We must come up with a feasible strategy to take back cultural properties stolen by the Japanese since their invasions in the Joseon era. We must invest enough time and resources to keep the issue on the agenda in diplomatic talks with Japan.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of Jungwon University and former ambassador to Tunisia.
By Kim Kyung-im