By Park Soo-mee
SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- Contrary to the prevailing public discontent among Koreans over France's recent decision to return looted ancient Korean royal books on a five-year renewable lease rather than permanently, bibliographer Park Sang-kuk thinks this is understandable.
"For France, it was the best decision they could've made under their legal circumstances," said Park, who spent the last 30 years locating Korean books displaced overseas, in reference to Paris' plan to transfer the first of those royal books from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) this summer.
"We're talking about a country where a great portion of the national income comes from selling museum tickets. That country has decided to return part of its collections, and we should give it some credit for that."
Skepticism about France's decision in some Koreans is fueled by civic activists who blame their government for not doing enough to reclaim its right to cultural possession. In reality, the settlement between the two countries is long overdue.
In 1866, a French force raided a Korean island in retaliation for the execution of a French Catholic missionary by Koreans. Upon their return home, French soldiers took with them some volumes of Korean royal books from the island and donated them to the French National Library in Paris.
The Korean government first requested the return of the books in 1991. The two governments finally reached an agreement 20 years later during French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to South Korea last year for the G-20 Seoul Summit.
Still, among the local community of experts, a mood for discontent clashes with respect for a European pioneer of art that has restituted a number of artifacts of their past colonies, including their return of Nigerian monolith stones in 2009.
But with the public sentiment toward Japan, which holds more than half of Korea's precious paintings and manuscripts, such discontent could quickly turn into rage.
"When it comes to talking about displaced Korean artifacts in Japan everyone in Korea suddenly turns into independent activists," Park says.
The emotional response is perhaps inevitable. The Japanese possesses an estimated 34,000 Korean artifacts mainly acquired during its 1910-45 occupation of Korea. Some were given away as gifts but others were illegally excavated from royal tombs, according to Korean experts.
Park was one of the first to compile a list of Korean manuscripts kept in the archive of Japan's Imperial Household Agency -- a job that took him more than 10 years to complete.
In 2001, he put them into a book and found that as many as 269 Korean royal books in the agency's collection were donated with the seal of the Japanese colonial-era authority in Korea stamped on them. Included were Uigwe, or illustrated records of royal protocols such as funerals and rites from the Joseon Dynasty.
The nationalist sentiment among Koreans against Japan is particularly strong because many historical disputes, including the issue of comfort women, or sex slaves for Japan's World War II soldiers, still remain unresolved.
Japan argues that the international law in force at the time acknowledged their occupation of Korea and collecting artifacts in their colony's territory was lawful, unlike the Nazis who plundered art from the Jews all across Europe.
But that, too, is debatable. Many Koreans believe that the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, signed in 1910, was forced and therefore was invalid -- an arguable point that has been rejected by Japan.
A few incidences over the years have cleared standards about the state ownership of cultural property. During the Washington Conference in 1998, representatives from 44 countries have established principles to identify and pressure owners of Nazi-confiscated art from the Holocaust era. But so far, items looted from former victims of colonial powers are not being considered for return.
"That says how difficult it is for many countries to assume and set any standards about their position on this issue," says Kim Ji-hon, an assistant program specialist for the Korean National Commission for UNESCO that has held a number of joint symposiums with the Korean government over displaced cultural artifacts.
"Because it could lead to historical judgments about their countries' past that is extremely sensitive. So they are very careful even in crafting phrases on official documents as you see when former colonial powers use the word 'transfer' instead of 'return,'" she said.
Negotiating with Japan is particularly tricky, because all pending claims from the colonial era, including the ownership of cultural artifacts, were supposedly settled when the two countries signed a normalization treaty in 1965.
Under the treaty, returning cultural artifacts had a low priority for Korea. Out of 4,479 items Korea initially requested, Japan returned 1,427 artifacts.
"Korea was too weak to demand its rights," says Lee Kyu-ho, an international law expert at Chungang University. "In the treaty, they had to compromise substantially on the restitution of cultural artifacts because they were desperate for Japan's aid and to catch up with North Korea, which was better off than the South at that time. Overall, the post-war settlements of the defeated states in Europe after the Second World War were very carefully prepared compared to how it was done in Asia."
Among the artifacts left out under the Japan-Korean Treaty was a five-story stone pagoda. The work, which now sits in a garden behind Hotel Okura in Kyoto, belongs to a Japanese private collector who has verbally agreed to return it to its original site in Icheon after an intense lobby by a local civic group.
"The work resonates a spiritual significance about the community identity," says Kim Na-young, who belongs to the civic group that has been lobbying to bring back the Buddhist pagoda since 2007.
Last year, she submitted a petition signed by 100,000 Koreans to the Japanese collector, stressing the legacy of the work to the minds of Korean people.
"The work is more than 1,000 years old and its reference to indigenous culture conveys so much about where it came from," she said.
Japan restituted a controversial stone monument in Yasukuni shrine in 2005. Famous Joseon painter Ahn Gyeon's "Mongyu Dowondo," which is considered the landmark of Korean art, also briefly traveled to Korea on loan in 1986 and 1996 from Japan's Tenri University.
"At the end of the day, the effort you put in to inspire the owner matters the most," Park says. "It's not the law. If you can convince a state or a private collector what the work actually means for your cultural heritage, that's the best way to bring back a work to where it belongs."
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