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76,000 Korean Cultural Treasures Still Abroad

Chosun Ilbo, March 19, 2009

Seoul, South Korea -- The retrieval of the seal of Emperor Gojong of the Chosun Dynasty, some 100 years after it disappeared, has rekindled interest in how Korean cultural properties were smuggled out of the country and how to retrieve them.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, a total of 76,134 cultural properties were smuggled out or plundered as of the end of 2008. They were taken away through grave robbery, plunder, sale, or donation, during chaotic periods, including the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 16th century, the French fleet's campaign against Ganghwa Island in 1866, Japanese colonial rule, and the Korean War.

Japan keeps the largest quantity of some 34,369 stolen Korean cultural properties. Some 99 percent of Buddhist paintings from the Koryo period, Koryo celadon and Chosun white porcelain are currently in Japan. France has the Oegyujanggak archive of Chosun Dynasty documents, looted during the naval campaign, "Jikji Simche Yojeol (Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests' Zen Teachings)," the world's oldest extant text printed with movable metal type during the Koryo Dynasty in 1377, and "Wang Ocheonchukuk Jeon (Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India)" by Hyecho, a Buddhist monk from the Shilla Kingdom.

UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property in 1970. Under its supervision, the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property (ICPRCP) has been calling for the return of smuggled or stolen cultural properties to their home countries. But the convention applies only to the cultural properties stolen after 1970, and since it has no legally binding force, most of the UNESCO's requests for the return of stolen cultural properties are ignored.

Korea has got a total of 7,466 stolen pieces of cultural properties back from 10 countries so far. Japan has returned 1,321 pieces to Korea. But the Japanese government says it can do nothing about treasures held by private collectors except ask them to return the items voluntarily.

Another way to retrieve them would be a private campaign in a situation where intergovernmental negotiations have produced no tangible results. It is also necessary to seek cooperation with other countries whose cultural properties have been stolen in large quantities.

Thus conflict arose recently between China and France when a Qing Dynasty bronze statue owned by designer Yves Saint Laurent was put up for auction. Indians were angry when personal belongings of Gandhi were put up for auction in the U.S. The two incidents made the return of stolen cultural properties an international issue. But many other countries are struggling to retrieve cultural assets.

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