Korea like other countries has been observing the approach taken by countries such as Italy & Egypt in retrieving their cultural property, whereby they have switched from a diplomatic approach to more hard-line measures with a certain amount of success.
Joong Ang Daily 
More than treasure lies beneath a historical trove of Korean art
[NEWS IN FOCUS:First in a two-part series]
Determining who has the rights – legal and natural – to the relics is a complicated question.
March 01, 2010
For much of its tumultuous history, Korea was invaded by stronger nations. Time after time, dating back to the fifth century, invaders ravaged the helpless country and none went home without spoils: They carted off cultural treasures ranging from texts from royal libraries to paintings and sculptures.
And so we come to the present, after the fall of imperialism. Korea, no longer a punching bag, is among a handful of countries trying to retrieve the pieces of its lost heritage.
Or is it?
Activists in Korea argue the government isn’t trying hard enough. And indeed, the government at best has tiptoed around the issue. Officials have said bringing back one treasure from one country would be akin to opening a can of worms that would force them to negotiate with other countries over other properties, and inevitably lead to diplomatic headaches.
According to the Cultural Heritage Administration in Korea, 107,857 pieces of Korean cultural properties were scattered throughout 18 countries as of the end of last year. Of these, more than 61,000 – by far the most – were in Japan, followed by about 27,000 in the United States and almost 4,000 in China.
Only about 7,500 of the looted pieces have been returned to date.
So Korea’s lawmakers are taking the initiative – after some prodding, on some of the items. Last Thursday, the National Assembly unanimously passed a motion demanding Japan return “Uigwe,” or “The Royal Protocols from the Joseon Dynasty.” The lawmakers’ motion also asks the Korean government to be more forthright in their negotiations with Japan.
The lawmakers took their action after a face-to-face meeting in Seoul on Feb. 11 between Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and his Japanese counterpart, Katsuya Okada.
In the buildup to their encounter, Korean media had speculated that Seoul would ask Japan to return Uigwe. But both foreign ministries played down speculation and neither Yu nor Okada discussed it in their joint press conference following their meeting.
Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun later said Yu had raised the issue but it wasn’t an official item on the agenda. Kim also declined to elaborate on Okada’s reaction.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, and retrieving the Uigwe would be a significant and symbolic event.
But determining who has the rights – legal and natural – to the relics is a complicated question.
Forty-five years ago, Korea renounced its claim to the cultural properties under the terms of the Treaty on Basic Relations. Japan, in a move hailed by activists as a “courageous decision,” has sent back some pieces as donations. But since that time, Korean officials have cited the treaty as a reason to tread lightly when seeking the return of Korea’s treasures.
While Korea-Japan relations have been and remain a sensitive subject, where cultural relics are concerned, it’s France that’s the new sticking point.
Last Wednesday, a civic group called Cultural Action appealed a French court’s rejection of its request for the return of royal texts from the 19th century. The 296 volumes in question belonged to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) library called Oegyujanggak, which Korean historians say was looted by the French military 1866.
Korea didn’t learn the manuscripts were in French possession until 1975. They were discovered by Park Byeong-seon, a Korean historian then working at the National Library of France. She found them classified under the Chinese index.
In the December ruling, the French court determined that the books belong to France because they have been in the national library for more than a century. The court said how they were acquired has no bearing on that fact.
Cultural Action has called for full ownership transfer of the texts, but the government – trying hard not to strain bilateral relations – is working to acquire the books on “permanent lease,” under which Korea would borrow the books and allow the French museum to display other Korean artifacts in return. The official request for the lease will be filed in the near future, the Foreign Ministry said last week.
A sensitive matter
So sensitive is this matter considered at the Foreign Ministry that some officials declined to speak on record about the royal books in France.
At issue seems to be the fear that one such return would set a precedent that could trigger a domino effect by which former imperialist nations would be challenged for possession of treasures taken from weaker nations.
“If we only considered Oegyujanggak volumes, then we could speed up our negotiations,” the official said. “But it could have an adverse impact on negotiations with other countries for the return of other pieces.
“We completely understand that activists would like to see the prompt return of the books,” he added. “But we need to take our time and be as prepared as we can.”
There has been some misunderstanding about a deal between France and Korea. During their summit meeting in 1993, Korean President Kim Young-sam and his French counterpart, Francois Mitterrand, reached an understanding by which Korea would import the TGV high-speed train technology from France in exchange for France returning the Uigwe on a loan basis. However, before the Uigwe would be returned, Korea would have to lend France books of equal value.
While the train deal went through, 17 years later only one book has changed hands, and the Koreans are still asking France to honor its part of the bargain. The unkept-deal has in fact been folded into new negotiations with the French government to retrieve the Uigwe.
A single book was given to Korea by Mitterrand, and the Korean public has been led to believe that Mitterrand reneged on a promise. However, multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that France never made any guarantees because the agreement never called for an unconditional return.
What further stymies the government is that there are no legal grounds on which to prod France. There are two existing conventions on cultural objects, but neither can be applied retroactively.
Under the the UN International Institute for the Unification of Private Law’s 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, nations are required to return looted cultural artifacts, but only if those items were removed illegally after 1995, and with compensation for their return, if the government had no knowledge that the objects were acquired illegally.
A 1970 Unesco convention says that cultural artifacts stolen or illegally imported must be returned to the original nation, but that only applies to items that have changed hands since 1970.
The Korean government feels its hands are tied. The activists disagree.
Hwang Pyoung-woo, head of Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, said Korea should cooperate with other nations whose properties had been looted and draw international attention to their causes.
“Korea could launch an international coalition of countries who have lost their cultural heritage,” said Hwang. “If we can team up with China, I think we can make some headway. But we’re sitting back.”
By Yoo Jee-ho
Joong Ang Daily 
Varying tacks are employed to restore lost heritage
NEWS IN FOCUS Second in a two-part series
March 02, 2010
Tens of thousands of Korean cultural treasures are stored in foreign museums all over the world, and so far the Korean government has taken a decidedly diplomatic approach to negotiating their return.
But recent hard-line actions by other countries trying to bring back their own cultural relics have given ammunition to Korean activists pressuring the government to take a tougher stand.
Last October, Egypt cut ties with the Louvre museum in Paris to protest its possession of five painted Egyptian wall fragments. French officials argued the Louvre acquired the pieces in good faith, but Egyptians said they were stolen in the 1980s. Several conferences between the two countries, as well as archeological studies by the Louvre in Egypt, were suspended.
In December, the fragments were returned while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the French capital.
Elsewhere, Iran early last month severed ties with the British Museum over a dispute surrounding an ancient artifact called the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay document issued by the Persian ruler Cyrus in 539 B.C.
The museum had promised to lend Iran the cylinder for an exhibition in January, but reneged after antigovernment demonstrations in Iran that led to brutal police response and further political repression.
The BBC reported that the museum said “practicalities” delayed the loan. However, Hamid Baqaei, head of
Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, told Bloomberg News that the decision was political.
He said that he would send protest letters to the United Nations as well as to museums all around the world.
In addition, Iran now plans to ask Unesco to be compensated for the $200,000 it spent on tighter security in anticipation of the loan.
Greece has also had issues with the British Museum, objecting to its possession of the famous Parthenon statues.
The Earl of Elgin removed the marbles from Athens during the 19th century, with questionable permission from and possible payment to the then-ruling Ottoman Empire. Elgin’s actions caused controversy even at the time, and the legality of the British Museum’s possession remains hotly debated today.
Greece has demanded the statues’ return – at least on loan. Last year, the British Museum agreed to a loan to the Acropolis Museum, on the condition that Greece acknowledge the pieces remained the property of the London-based museum.
But Greece rejected the condition. Culture Minister Antonis Samaras told Bloomberg that such an acknowledgement would be “tantamount to legitimizing the snatching of the marbles and the carving up of the monument 207 years ago.”
Meanwhile, Israel and Russia are negotiating over a historic collection of books and Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts amassed by a Russian Jewish family in the 1840s.
On Feb. 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed Israel’s desire to retrieve the collection. Israeli officials recently told the Haaretz newspaper that thanks to improved relations between Jerusalem and Moscow, Russian officials will “positively consider” Israel’s request.
A quieter approach
Korea has been unable to recover the lion’s share of the 107,857 of its cultural relics now in the hands of other countries, with the largest number of treasures being in Japan. And Hwang Pyoung-woo, head of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute, has blasted the government for being too gentle.
“[Other] countries have committed a sin [by taking our property]. So what’s the point of being polite to them?
“Our diplomats are supposed to fight for us,” Hwang said. “When other countries breach any kind of etiquette, we are too nice to say anything in response.”
Yang Chang-soo, director general of European affairs at the Foreign Ministry, bristled at the notion that the government isn’t doing its best, though he still couldn’t point to concrete results.
“Being loud isn’t always the answer,” said Yang, who since July 2008, when he was still deputy director general of European affairs, has been involved in negotiations with France for the return of 296 volumes of Korean royal protocols – the “Uigwe” – looted from a Joseon Dynasty library called Oegyujanggak in 1866 and now in the National Library of France.
“I don’t know what would constitute ‘strong’ but there have long been efforts at both the high level and working level [to try to bring back the texts]. We’re not being passive.”
Yang acknowledged Cultural Action’s efforts to achieve the identical goal, but said the government is trying to make sure the activists’ legal proceedings don’t affect official negotiations.
“We’re pressuring France to make the political decision for the sake of the two countries’ future relations,” he said.
“It’s really the only pending issue in our bilateral relations.”
And Yang says progress is being made.
“We have built the consensus that a quick resolution of this matter [returning the royal texts] is helpful to our ties,” he said.
Kim Joong-ho, the legal representative for Cultural Action, said he would fight to the end to secure the ancient volumes.
“Cultural pieces that have been acquired illegally cannot be French national properties,” Kim said. “The Oegyujanggak books have clearly been looted.
“Even the French government admitted as much.”
Kim continued, “The French point to international conventions and agreements that don’t apply retroactively. But the prescription doesn’t apply to war crimes, and the same goes for looted cultural properties.
“There may be a prescription in the political sense, but that doesn’t wipe out moral obligations.”