January 19, 2010

French court rules on disputed Korean manuscripts

Posted at 2:01 pm in Similar cases

A French court has ruled on the Korean Manuscripts located in the Bibliothèque Nationale, stating that they are national property & belong to France.

Korea Herald

Monday, January 11, 2010
[EDITORIAL] Looted artifacts

A recent French court ruling that Joseon-period royal texts looted by the French navy in 1866 belong to the National Library of France should spur the Korean government to step up efforts to have them returned to Korea.

The story of these long-lost royal books is an unfortunate one. The French navy stole 297 books from a royal library on Ganghwa Island, then burned down the building with the rest of its holdings during an invasion in 1866.

It wasn’t until 1975 that these books’ existence came to light, thanks to the efforts of a lone Korean-born academic in France. The Korean government officially requested the return of the books in 1992.

In 1993, French President Francois Mitterrand brought one of the books to Seoul during his state visit. Even then, the return took the form of an indefinite loan. President Kim Young-sam and Miterrand agreed that the two countries would solve the issue of the books’ return on the principle of “exchange and loan.”

Also in 1993, the Korean government awarded the project to build Korea’s high-speed rail network to a French firm, raising hopes for amicable outcome. Perhaps Koreans were naive to believe that the high-speed train project would lead to the repatriation of the stolen texts.

Negotiations have stalled and no additional books have been “loaned” back to Korea. It is against such a backdrop that a Korean NGO filed a suit in France for the return of the books.

According to reports, the French court ruled that the texts in question are kept at the National Library of France and since the properties of the National Library are national properties, the circumstances and conditions of the texts’ acquisition cannot influence the fact that the texts are national properties. The Korean NGO said it would appeal the decision once sufficient funding for further legal action is secured.

In response to criticism that the government is not doing enough to have the texts returned, the Foreign Ministry said it is negotiating with France to get the texts on long-term loan to Seoul in exchange for rotating loans of important Korean cultural relics to France. The ministry said that it made the proposal in 2007 and that it is still waiting for an official response from France.

In contrast, French President Nicholas Sarkozy last month returned an ancient tomb mural from Egypt to visiting Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak, which had been held at the Louvre. The remaining four pieces were returned to Egypt by the French embassy in Egypt during Mubarak’s state visit. The Louvre had earlier said it would return the five tomb mural pieces to demonstrate France’s resolve to fight the illegal trade of cultural relics. The Louvre acquired the pieces in 2000 and 2003, but in 2008 the pieces were discovered to have been stolen.

The Joseon-period royal texts were looted during an invasion, a circumstance which is far worse than that surrounding the purchase of the Egyptian tomb mural fragments. While the French government returns artifacts purchased when it discovers that they were stolen goods, it maintains that it will not return artifacts which it acknowledges were looted.

The current global trend favors the return of looted artifacts to the original countries. Greece has been famously pressing Britain to return the Elgin marbles and has even built a new museum to house the pieces when they are returned.

The Foreign Ministry said that it continues to engage in negotiations with the French government over the return of the stolen royal texts. Clearly, quiet negotiations have not been enough. It is time to make greater efforts to pressure the French government.

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1 Comment »

  1. Francois said,

    04.14.10 at 12:09 pm

    The books should be returned. End of story.

    – A French Citizen

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