After decades of negotiations, the Bukgwan Victory Monument was driven through the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas on its circuitous journey back home. Because communist North Korea does not have formal relations with Japan, South Korean diplomats secured its return and then turned it over to their estranged neighbor.
It marks the first time that Seoul has formally intervened on Pyongyang’s behalf to recover a cultural relic, and could set a precedent for the future.
It’s good to see a cultural icon returned, but it raises all kinds of interesting and troubling issues. First, of course, is the location of the piece
Although the stone tablet was less valuable than some other artworks, its presence at a shrine that honors the souls of 2.5 million military dead including those convicted of war crimes was particularly rankling to Korean activists. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun took up the cause during a meeting last year with Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi.
“There were a lot of psychological factors with this monument. It was about an embarrassing and humiliating defeat for the Japanese, and I think they wanted it hidden away,” said Kang Kyung-hwan, director of the Cultural Heritage Administration’s international division.
Toshiaki Nambu, the head of Yasukuni Shrine, told the media that his board never contested the return of the monument. “The monument is not ours. We are only keeping it temporarily and planning to return it,” Nambu was quoted as saying
Which has to qualify as one of the most bald-faced lies ever uttered, given that Koreans have been trying to arrange repatriation for 27 years. This is not the end, though,
This is only the starting point for a national movement to recover all that they stole from us,” said Choi Seo-myeon, the scholar, now 76, who found the pilfered monument at Yasukuni after a lengthy search.Choi and his fellow Korean scholars say the Japanese were as bad as the Nazis in Europe: Imperial forces plundered treasures during an occupation that ended only with Tokyo’s surrender to the Allies in 1945.
The items range from the exquisite — celadon vases, bronze Buddhas, gold jewelry — to the macabre. Among the latter are as many as 100,000 noses and ears that Japanese samurai sliced off Koreans as trophies during a brutal 7-year war in the late 16th century. The body parts were buried in a mound in Kyoto.
When Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations in 1965, the Japanese returned more than 1,300 items. About 1,700 more have come home through private negotiations. Korean collectors have bought back some pieces on the open market, and some Japanese citizens have donated pieces. But Koreans say it is only a fraction of what remains missing.
One of the interesting questions at this point has to be whether there might be distinction, on repatriation, between items taken by governments (and their agents) by force or by seizure laws later deemed illegitimate versus those held in private hands and acquired through purchase, even under adverse economic conditions. If the latter distinction isn’t made — and the legal situation now is considerably less friendly to the export or purchase of culturally significant achaeological finds — then there will have to be a massive global repatriation out of Western museums. I’m thinking, for example, of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, which has some astounding collections based in no small part on purchases made in the 19th century, when Japan was at an extreme economic disadvantage to the West.
[Crossposted to Frog In A Well: Korea]