Hangul is not personal property

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Hangul is not personal property

In September 2009, a water meter reader discovered the top of the tombstone of King Munmu at a house in Gyeongju. He noticed the writing on the stone around the water fountain and reported the case to authorities. So then, to whom does this national treasure belong? It doesn’t belong to the owner of the house or the meterman. It’s national property.

When the owner of a found article is unaccounted for, the finder can claim it. However, cultural properties are exceptions. Even if it was found in the backyard or in a person’s house, the one who discovered it has no right to it. Cultural assets belong to the community; the finder receives a reward of up to 100 million won ($87,490).

Despite this clear principle, a nationally treasured document describing the Korean alphabet system, a copy of the “Hunminjeongeum,” is currently at the center of a contentious debate. Bae Ik-gi, who came into possession of this rare artifact in 2008, recently expressed his intention to sell it to the government for 100 billion won, 10 percent of the appraised value of 1 trillion won. Bae claims he discovered the copy while repairing his house, essentially confessing that he had not inherited it from his ancestors. But he hid this rare document in his home, after which a portion of the book was destroyed in fire - a testament to lax maintenance.

Some legal professionals would argue that a cultural property discovered by accident belongs to the nation, and if Bae continues to refuse to hand over the book, he should be taken into custody. According to the Cultural Properties Act, hiding a cultural asset is punishable by to up to three years in prison.

Some suggest a compromise - having a philanthropist buy it from Bae at a reasonable price and donate it to the nation. In 1943, Jeon Hyeong-pil purchased the Andong copy of the “Hunminjeongeum” at a price equivalent to 10 houses and stored it in Gansong Art Museum.

In fairness, most people would be tempted by the money when such a treasure is appraised at 1 trillion won. However, it’s unreasonable for Bae to demand 100 billion won. The appraised price is irrelevant if no buyer exists. It may be different in nature, but the most expensive painting ever sold was a Paul Gauguin painting, sold in February in Basel, Switzerland, for 320 billion won.

Authorities must not negotiate with Bae if they wish not to set an undesirable precedent. What would they do if a similar situation arose in the future? Other copies may turn up. But once a principle crumbles, it is irreversible. It may be best to remain resolute and strict at the risk of losing this copy.

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 12, Page 35


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