NGO Campaigning for Retrieving Stolen Cultural Properties
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Many Koreans become interested in retrieving cultural properties stolen by foreign powers in the past after a French court recently rejected a Korean civic organization’s request to return royal texts from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), taken by French soldiers during an attack in the 19th century.
Hwang Pyung-woo, the chief of Cultural Action and director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Research Institute, said France betrayed a promise made in a 1993 summit to return books plundered from Oegyujanggak a repository on Ganghwa Island, and he would push ahead to get them back.
Hwang and the civic group first asked the French Ministry of Culture to return the books, but the request was rejected.
The organization then filed a suit in a French administrative court in 2007 asking that a law should be revised to exclude illegally obtained property as national assets.
The ruling was made on Dec. 24, just 20 days after the hearing. “Generally, a court decision is handed down months after the hearing, but in this case, the hearing was only for form’s sake and the court made the ruling just before the holiday season. It was absurd,” Hwang said.
“We are considering appealing the decision, but it will take time as we have to fund the lawsuit ourselves.” About 180 million won to cover legal fees was raised through donations.
Hwang criticized the government for doing “nothing” to retrieve the royal texts. According to Cultural Action, there are 340 more documents pillaged by France other than the scripts from Oegyujanggak.
“The government should create a task force of experts specialized in retrieving cultural artifacts stored overseas,” he said. “I want to ask President Lee Myung-bak a question – which is more important, nuclear power plants or royal books from Oegyujanggak?”
Since 1991, the authorities have been urging the French government to return the royal texts, but hardly any progress has been made to date.
The civic group called for stronger government action to repatriate cultural artifacts from overseas, citing a recent case in Egypt, where arduous diplomatic efforts made it possible for the country to retrieve some stolen properties from France.
The Cultural Heritage Administration said that there are currently about 76,143 Korean cultural properties in 20 countries.
However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said they have been trying to get back the pillaged royal texts and thinks their efforts so far have gone unnoticed.
“The UNESCO convention on illegal cultural heritage outflow only regulates events after 1970. The five Egyptian painted wall fragments France returned last year were taken from 2000 to 2003 and were eligible to be returned under the terms of the convention,” an official of the ministry said. “However, our case is different and we cannot pressure France, citing the convention’s decision.”
The government is seeking more negotiations on a return or permanent lease of the documents when the heads of states hold talks at the G20 meeting in Seoul later this year.
King Jeongjo, the 22nd king of Joseon, built Oegyujanggak on Ganghwa off the west coast, as an annex of the Royal Library to store heirlooms, including the royal protocol texts that were taken by the French troops. The building was destroyed during the 1866 temporary occupation but has since been restored.
The collection was taken from Korea during “Byeongin-yango,” the French attack on Korea. French troops took 297 books from the archive that initially held about 1,000 ― the remainder were destroyed in a fire the soldiers started.