Early one morning last month, with little fanfare a padded truck pulled out from the warehouse of a South Korean museum with a precious cargo on the last leg of a 100-year journey home.
Inside was a simple 1,000-pound slab of granite whose rite of passage tells a lot about what’s happened in recent years to relations among the three countries involved -- South Korea, North Korea and Japan.
The monument, which celebrates the victory of a 16th century Korean warrior over Japanese invaders, mysteriously disappeared a century ago when the Imperial Japanese Army overran its home in what is now North Korea. In 1978, a Korean scholar found it in Tokyo, tucked away ignominiously next to a pigeon coop at the Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial memorial to Japan’s military dead.
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.
“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.
“We believe there are over 100,000 items still in Japan,” said You Hong-june, administrator of South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration. “Under international law, the Japanese [government has] no responsibility for items in the hands of ordinary civilians, but we believe there is a moral responsibility.”
Cultural relics that came from what is now North Korea present another complication. Tokyo and Pyongyang have been talking for years about a permanent peace treaty but have stumbled over such obstacles as North Korea’s former practice of abducting Japanese civilians and its continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But with relations between the Koreas warming, Seoul took upon itself the recovery the Bukgwan monument -- “Bukgwan” being an old name for the northernmost region of Korea where fierce battles took place with Japanese forces in the 16th century. Inscribed with Chinese characters celebrating the victory of Jeong Mun-bu and his Korean militia, the monument was erected in 1709 in the city of Gilju.
Two centuries later, Japanese soldiers again invaded, this time fighting the Russians for domination of the Korean peninsula, which Japan annexed in 1910.
Exactly how the Bukgwan monument ended up in Tokyo, nobody is quite certain, but scholars suspect the tablet was dug out of its original location by a Japanese general and later presented as a gift to the emperor.
In the 1970s, Choi was researching old newspapers in a library when the historian came across a startling account by a Korean monk who said he had seen the victory monument at Yasukuni. “I went day and night looking for it,” Choi recalled. He found it in an unkempt back lot.
Choi thought the monument would promptly be sent back to Korea. Instead, negotiations ended up taking 27 years.
The Japanese government first said the monument could only go back to North Korea and then that it would be up to the Yasukuni Shrine board.
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.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry turned it over to South Korea in October with a statement expressing hope that it would “promote friendship between Japanese and Korean people.”
In Seoul, it was put on display for three months before being sent north. Descendants of Jeong, the celebrated general, had a brief ceremony at the end of last month to say goodbye.
Jeong Tae-ryu, a lawyer and an 11th-generation descendant of the military hero, said that some relatives were reluctant to let the monument go back to North Korea but that most thought it was best off being where it had been originally.
“For 100 years, his monument went through great humiliation,” Jeong said. “We just hope his spirit is consoled by going home.”