By Don Southerton, Editor
I’m still pondering on results of the G-20 Summit in Korea. At some level, it showcases South Korea’s economic successes. No doubt many were be pleased at Seoul’s trendy and sophisticated global business, retail, and Green urban centers.
That said, we see few fruits from the side meetings. Most important, despite strong expectations little moved forward on the KORUS FTA. I do not see this as a lack of commitment by both nations and their leaders—but some powerful forces ( i.e. pressure from Ford and US Labor Unions) at work.
Some issues were resolved… like a longstanding demand by Korea for books looted by the French in the 1860s.
One of the Uigwe books that was stored at Gwanghwa Island’s royal library before the French invasion. (Yonhap)
Koreans welcome French decision to return looted books, some with bitterness
By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Nov. 12 (Yonhap) — France’s agreement on Friday to essentially return looted Korean royal books was received as one of the highest diplomatic feats host South Korea achieved during the G-20 summit, although the deal fell short of satisfying everyone here.
Reactions varied as French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a five-year renewable lease scheme for the 297 Uigwe books, taken during the 19th-century French invasion of Korea and now preserved at the National Library of France.
Coming after a long tug of war, the agreement means much to Korea. It clears the shameful historic legacy the waning Joseon Dynasty left in its first armed encounter with a western power in 1866, and above all, the decision by France sets a shining precedent to other countries holding hundreds of thousands of stolen Korean artifacts.
“It (the lease) means the virtual return of the books, of course we have to receive them,” Yi Tae-jin, head of the National Institute of Korean History, a state body that sets guidelines for Korean history education, said.
Yi, a long-time activist who made efforts to have the books returned, recalled a disappointing 1993 visit by then French President Francois Mitterrand. The French leader gave back one of the books when France was bidding to sell its high-speed train technology to South Korea. France won the bid, but there was no follow-up on the artifact.
“When President Mitterrand said the books would be returned, I was impressed and thought France was really a cultural powerhouse, but it was a real disappointment,” Yi said. “Now France deserves to be called a cultural powerhouse.”
Uigwe books are unique Korean heritage documents now listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The royal manuscripts recorded and illustrated all of the rituals, formalities and daily routines of the royal court during the Joseon Dynasty. Historians say that such thorough royal recordings do not exist in China, Japan, or any other Asian countries.
After decades-long wrangling, the Korean and French leaders settled on rather neutral terms. Bound by the domestic law against any permanent transfer of national properties, Sarkozy committed to the handover in the form of a “lease” and promised it will be rolled over every five years.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took the French decision as the permanent, “virtual return” of the books.
But the term “lease” was disappointing for those who have fought for an official, permanent return.
“It’s really sad,” Park Byeong-sen, a respected librarian, said.
It was Park who discovered the books that were mistakenly classified as Chinese at a Versailles annex of the French library in 1975. The 85-year-old scholar, now in Paris, believes Seoul should have insisted on its proprietorship of the manuscripts, although that could have further delayed their actual return.
“Does it make any sense to borrow properties from those who have stolen them?” she asked.
For a civic group, the deal dashed hopes for a legal solution. The Seoul-based Cultural Action was waiting for a ruling from a Paris appellate court on the Uigwe handover. In a December ruling last year, a French administrative court acknowledged for the first time that the Korean books were stolen but said they could not be returned as they were now French property.
“The lease deal throws cold water on many campaigns to get Korean artifacts back,” Hwang Pyung-woo, a representative of the civic group, said. “We will nevertheless go ahead with our lawsuit.”
Still, many believe the French decision could help set off more returns of stolen artifacts. The Japanese government already pledged to return 1,205 Uigwe books it has been holding at the Imperial Household Agency in Tokyo. The commitment came in August on the 100th anniversary of Japanese annexation of Korea.
The Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea believes more than 61,400 Korean cultural artifacts were taken away during Japanese invasions or colonial rule. The figure may exceed 300,000, it says, if those that are privately owned are counted.
For most artifacts taken to countries other than Japan, there is no way of even locating them.
Park Sang-guk, a noted art historian and head of the non-governmental Korea Heritage Institute in Seoul, welcomed the French decision as a step toward more repatriation of Korean heritage.
“Regardless of the method of the return, we have to take it positively and receive them,” Park said. “It’s a long-awaited piece of news, a grateful one.”