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Korean Buddhists seek return of Korean assets from U.S.

By Lee Joo-hee, The Korea Herald, Jan 6, 2009

Seoul, South Korea -- An association of the Jogye Order, South Korea's largest Buddhist denomination, has begun working on the return of Korea's cultural assets from the United States in collaboration with North Korean counterparts.

The Lay Buddhist Association for the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism said yesterday that its representatives will fly to the United States this Wednesday for a nine-day visit to start a discussion on getting Korean assets returned.

The representatives will be working for the recovery of a Lamaist Stupa-type silver sarrira (Buddhist relics) container, currently stored at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The sarrira container was originally located in the Hwajang temple at Gaeseong, North Korea, before being taken away during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945).

The association explained that the return of the sarrira container was requested by North Korea's Chosun Buddhist Alliance last October. North Korea, which does not have formal diplomatic relations with the United States, has delegated all work related to return to the South, the association said.

The representatives, upon arriving, will also visit for representatives' offices for both two Koreas at the United Nations in New York and urge for their support.

While in the United States, the team will also check up on other Korean cultural assets there, including: "Seok-ga Samjondo (painting with a main Buddha flanked by two Buddhist figures)" of Hoeam temple of Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, possessed by New York's Mary and Jackson Burke Collection; a historical record of the Joseon Dynasty's royal family in Columbia University; and any Korean assets stored at Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Harvard University.

"Through this visit, we will be able to get a clearer picture of the amount of Korean cultural assets that were taken to the United States," the association said.

"This visit, however, does not mean these assets will be immediately returned. It is more significant in a way that we raise the problem to the international community of Korean cultural assets (that were taken by force) currently scattered in the United States," it said.

While North Korea usually seeks South Korea's help in getting cultural assets returned from countries it does not have diplomatic ties with, South Korea gets North Korea's help in getting the relics back from Japan, the association explained.

Based on the Korea-Japan treaty signed in 1965, Tokyo and Seoul had agreed that Japan will "voluntarily transfer" parts of the cultural assets taken during the colonial period.

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