Can we trust the future?When North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test, a strange argument circulated in Cyberspace. “When the two Koreas are united,” the argument said, “the nuclear weapons will be ours, so this is a good thing.” That was the easy logic of immature supporters of nuclear arms. Of course, it is an absurd, one-dimensional argument. It is a view that failed to perceive that the North’s nuclear arms are a threat of deadly consequence for the Korean Peninsula. Let’s say that the two Koreas are reunited smoothly. There will be no way that the international community will tolerate a nuclear-armed, unified Korea. Korea is a member of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Even if it came to possess a nuclear weapon for some reason, Korea would have to surrender it.
There is a reason for revisiting this absurd argument from 2006 because of a somewhat exceptional argument that extends from it. “Is North Korea ours?” is the question.
Let us refine our thoughts. Let’s say that an important piece of our cultural heritage was about to enter the North. What should we do? Should we welcome its arrival for the future after unification? Should we protest because the North may neglect it? This is not a minor worry. It is a reality that lies ahead of us. It relates to the cultural assets taken from the Korean Peninsula to Japan during colonial rule.
The Kim Jong-un and Shinzo Abe administrations appear to be moving toward normalizing relations between North Korea and Japan. Officials are working hard, visiting Beijing and Stockholm, as part of that process. Japanese media are focused on the possible return of Japanese abductees and the amount of restitution paid to the North. One of the things we must pay attention to is the issue of the return of cultural assets. The Pyongyang Declaration between North Korea and Japan after the summit of then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in September 2002 stated that the two countries agreed to seriously discuss the issue of returning cultural assets during normalization talks.
There have also been signs that the Japanese Foreign Ministry is addressing the issue. During a law suit in Tokyo on a demand to make public the documents of South Korea-Japan normalization talks, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said last month it won’t disclose the documents from 50 years ago. It said its strategy for negotiations with the North on cultural assets will be exposed if the documents were made public. It seems the North and Japan could conclude the normalization negotiations quickly and the cultural assets could be returned swiftly.
During the Korea-Japan normalization talks in 1965, Japan’s return of Korean cultural assets was an important issue. Japan only returned properties from the South, arguing that cultural assets from the North should be returned to the North when diplomatic ties were established. The normalization talks took place at a time when we had a lesser appreciation for cultural properties. Japan returned 1,431 pieces, but many were of low value such as straw shoes and purses. Five decades have passed and more information is known about the whereabouts of important pieces in Japan. The North, then, will have a clearer advantage in its talks.
There is another critical difference. During the 1965 normalization talks, Japan only returned pieces the Japanese government owned, claiming that it could do nothing about cultural assets possessed by private collectors. Over the past 50 years, many of these cultural assets from private collections were donated to the Japanese government. One of the most representative donations was the Ogura collection, known as the most precious collection of Korean antiquities in Japan. Japanese businessman Takenoske Ogura collected about 1,000 pieces from around the Korean Peninsula. The collection contained up to 40 pieces that could be considered national treasures, such as a golden crown. The Ogura family donated it to the Japanese government in 1982. There is a high possibility that the North will demand the return of the collection. If Japan agrees, priceless cultural assets will leave Japan and go to North Korea.
Japanese museums own many important pieces of Goryeo celadon and golden accessories from the Silla period. Apart from their monetary value, they are exquisite antiquities of overwhelming beauty. Nothing can better represent the spirit of the Korean people.
South Korean cultural authorities appeared to have no objection that cultural assets discovered from the North should be returned to the North. But many cultural properties including a helmet suspected to be worn by a Joseon king and traditional dresses of the royal family have uncertain origins. There is also a high possibility that the North Korean authorities will demand the entire Ogura collection be returned to them.
There are historic precedents on the return of cultural properties. One important example is the return of 2 million cultural assets plundered by Nazi Germany from all over Europe. Shortly after Germany’s defeat, the cultural properties went back to the original owners through negotiations. Pieces that were not discussed at the time were returned if they were discovered later. The French government tracked down the whereabouts of masterpieces by Monet, Gauguin and Cezanne and demanded their return in 1975. In 1994, 28 pieces were returned. It is also important to note that cultural properties owned privately are still returned if it is confirmed they were confiscated. The 1965 Korea-Japan normalization talks, however, excluded privately owned pieces.
Should valuable cultural assets be allowed to go to the North in the belief that they will eventually belong to us after unification? Should we encourage it? Or adamantly protest? For a wise decision, we need collective intelligence. But we have to remember we do not have the luxury of time.