Recovering South Korea’s lost treasures

Reporting from Seoul

Hwang Pyung-woo sometimes lies awake at night cataloging in his mind South Korea’s missing national treasures — the historic texts and stolen artifacts displayed in a Tokyo museum, a home in Paris, a university library in California.

“I can’t sleep, I’m so outraged by this,” said Hwang, 50, a historian and director of Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute and one of those at the forefront of a burgeoning movement here to recover historic items removed from the country during successive waves of foreign invasion and nearly half a century of Japanese colonial rule.


Thanks in part to activists such as Hwang, Seoul is taking a new aggressive policy toward recovering its cultural treasures. The government is creating a task force to negotiate the return of more than 76,000 items around the globe in 20 nations, including more than 34,000 in Japan and 18,000 in the U.S.

In recent weeks, South Korea has signed agreements with Japan and France to arrange for the return of historic texts. Japan will return 1,205 Korean royal books taken during Japan’s colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. The collection includes the revered Uigwe, text and illustrations documenting royal customs during the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for five centuries until the year 1897.

A photograph in one South Korean newspaper captured the souring national mood: It showed Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan happily displaying a set of centuries-old Korean books to President Lee Myung-bak during a recent meeting in Tokyo. Kan beams like some museum docent, but Lee is not smiling. His shoulders are slumped. A cartoon bubble over his head might read: “Just hand over the books.”

Hwang criticized Japan for what he called its superior attitude. “They’re making a big deal about returning these artifacts, like it earns them some sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card with South Korea,” he said. “Remember, they actually stole this stuff.”

Japanese officials say they understand South Korea’s emotions. “In terms of feelings, I can empathize. That’s one thing, but the government does not control everything,” said Hiroshi Suzuki, director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Culture at Japan’s embassy in Seoul. He suggested many items might now be in private hands.

“There is a certain limit to the government’s reach,” Suzuki said. “But to the extent where we are able to deliver, we have done our best.”

South Korea has also negotiated with France to retrieve several hundred “Oegyujanggak” royal texts seized during an 1886 invasion after the killing of French missionaries here.

For decades, the books have been kept in the French National Library. Officials claim them as the legitimate spoils of war and were defensive when South Korean historians visited Paris to view them.

Now France has agreed to lease the books — many now bearing a French National seal — back to South Korea. Not everyone is pleased with the deal. “It’s insulting,” Hwang said. “Why lease what is ours? The French didn’t even offer an apology.”

For now, Hwang continues his treasure hunt. He’s conducted one-man pickets outside government offices in Tokyo and has traveled to Paris to view Korean artifacts — all without any financial support from the South Korean government.

He knows that returning the items will take time. Still, he plans to eventually put pressure on all countries harboring artifacts, including the U.S. For example, he says, the Jibong yuseol, the first Korean encyclopedia, published in 1614, is being kept at Stanford University.

“Korea has lived without these items for the past hundred years and I don’t want to engage in any shrill nationalist campaign,” he said. “It’s all about diplomacy, going about the work in a calm and peaceful manner. But in the end, we want the items back.”

Ethan Kim in The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.