Korea Times reports on another long-running dispute over the return of historical documents taken from Korea – in this case those taken from the Oe-Kyujanggak (Outer Royal Library) by the French in 1866. Apparently Korean scholars are unhappy about the fact that the South Korean PM has agreed with her French counterpart that the stolen documents can be exhibited in Seoul regularly as this may imply a weakening of the resolve to get them back permanently.
The English edition of the Hankyoreh newspaper has an editorial today praising the recent return of 47 volumes of an edition of the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty (朝鮮王朝實錄) to Korea from Tokyo University. The edition was originally taken to Japan by the first governor-general of colonial Korea, Terauchi Masatake, but most of the 1,000 volumes were burnt in the fire that followed the Kanto Earthquake of 1923. It has been returned as the result of a civil society based campaign rather than government action.
A couple of interesting facts emerge from the editorial that I didn’t know before. One is that the Korea-Japan Treaty of 1964, negotiated by Park Chung-hee, specifically promised not to pursue the return of cultural items taken by Japan. This seems particularly ironic considering Park’s later very strong turn to a policy of cultural nationalism.
The other is the concrete figures it provides for Korean cultural artifacts overseas: 74,434 (confirmed items) of which 46 percent are in Japan. This got me to thinking about what this might mean in comparative terms. Is Korea significantly worse off than other countries around the world in terms of how much of its ‘national heritage’ has leaked out? Is it worse off than other developing countries or other former colonies? Are there more Indian, Greek, Nigerian or Iraqi cultural artifacts overseas? And what about Japan? As you can probably tell, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.