Buildings were burned down and corpses lay in the streets. This was a common scenery in the Korean War, merely 60 years ago. The country was facing wartime, which took away lives, assets, and hopes. And it was not just the Korean War—Korea had suffered from foreign invasions such as the Imjin War and Manchu War even much longer ago. During these national catastrophes, Korea’s cultural properties were looted and taken away to both near and far-away foreign lands.
According to Diplomatic Service and Cultural Heritage Administration research in 2012, it was estimated that 149,126 of Korea’s cultural assets were plundered by foreign aggressions, and most of them remain in those exotic lands. Since Korea went through the Japanese colonial period, Japan is indeed in first place for those who have taken away Korea’s cultural assets—68,295 assets (and more are being discovered). What was vicious was that during such imperialism, many of these foreign invaders did not hesitate to desecrate graves to steal treasures.
▲ CARA has been putting efforts in getting the Queen Munjeong’s Seal back to its original place and it succeeded in doing so. Provided by www.newtimes.co.kr.
▲ Signature campaign had been ongoing in order to show others that Koreans do pay attention to cultural asset redemptions. Provided by www.gurinet.org.
Next to Japan, the United States (U.S.) has removed 42,293 properties, Germany 10,792, and China 8,225. The U.S. stole or destroyed cultural properties mainly during the Korean War. For instance, Queen Munjeong’s Golden Seal—this asset has recently been an issue because of a movement for its return—was stolen and has been in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Although time has passed since these miserable exploitations, the gloomy traces of invasion have not been cleared away as cultural property repatriation has not been going so well in Korea. Only 9,751 assets were returned to their homeland, 6.5 percent of those plundered.
Efforts for Return
The Cultural Assets Redemption Agency (CARA) is a private organization having as its purpose the return of Korea’s cultural assets to their homeland. “To be exact, the organization longs for the redemption of the cultural properties that were illegally removed during periods when the country was suppressed because of foreign aggression,” said Gu Jinyoung, a researcher at CARA.
CARA also has been working to put incorrectly placed or displayed cultural assets back to their rightful form. Gu mentioned an example of the organization’s achievement as the following: “At the entrance to Gyeongbok Palace Station, the stone lanterns used to be arranged in rows. However, we found out that such arrangement was the traditional style that has been common in Japanese shrines. Koreans, contrarily, rarely used stone lanterns at places that people think of as living spaces.” With such a fact as grounds, the organization requested the city to remove the stone lanterns, and the request was granted.
Of CARA’s achievements, the most recent one was a signature-seeking campaign to repatriate Queen Munjeong’s Golden Seal mentioned above. “The movement’s main purpose was to show the U.S. government that Korean citizens do care about their lost cultural properties. But not only that, if there were over 100,000 signatures from the campaign, the organization would gain the right to initiate a criminal lawsuit in U.S. courts,” said Gu. Fortunately, in this case, CARA’s efforts have seen results, and LACMA and County of California have approved the return of the cultural asset with certain conditions. “Our organization has already gained all the evidence to fulfill the conditions of LACMA and we gained positive results in bringing back the seal.”
Along with individual actions such as those of CARA, the government also has been making efforts for the return of cultural assets. For instance, Korea has been a member of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to Its Countries of Origin or Its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP). ICPRCP is the organization that was launched to resolve diplomatic problems relating to repatriation of assets, and its members comprise those countries with an interest in these matters. Korea has been the chair of the ICPRCP since 2012 thanks to the government’s efforts.
Agreeable, but Too Troublesome
▲ A researcher of CARA, Gu Jinyoung explains the importance of government being open to private organization. Photographed by Chang Hae Sun.
Just as with environmental problems, cultural property repatriation is indeed an issue that cannot be solved by an individual alone. To assure the safe and efficient return of national treasures, cooperation between the public and government is needed. However, it seems that most citizens are not paying attention to the matter; instead, most people are rather indifferent toward repatriation of cultural assets.
The main cause of the public indifference is people’s common misconception. Regarding the issue of returning cultural assets many people think that their efforts would not pay off in success. That is, they believe that despite their attempts, nothing would change. Certainly, people agree emotionally that return of cultural assets is important in establishing Korea’s identity. But nowadays, when international relationships are being emphasized, a country cannot avoid diplomatic ramifications when demanding such returns. With such opinions, people believe that it is much more advantageous to disregard such matters.
However, public attention is needed for a practical and effective repatriation. Maybe it would be burdensome to take actions such as those taken by the members of CARA, but even the smallest attention by individuals is desperately needed. For instance, individuals could sign their names during campaigns for the repatriation of cultural properties. Actually, although Queen Munjeong’s Golden Seal is to be safely returned, the signature-seeking campaign did not proceed well. Fewer than 10,000 people had signed with a week left in the campaign. An individual might not be able to be a hero, but a great deal of individuals could change the world.
Also, CARA asserts that both private organizations like itself and the government should be more willing to take real action. “Well there has been much research proving that our cultural assets have been taken illegally,” said Gu. “However, while devoting myself in this field, I have discovered that not many really do take real action such as traveling abroad to demand that foreign authorities return the properties.”
▲ Uigwe is the royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty and private organizations succeeded in returning the asset to Korea. Provided by playculture.chosun.com.
Adding to this, the government has some things to improve on for a more efficient redemption, according to Gu. “When we returned the Joseon Dynasty-Uigwe, the government did not welcome us as expected. Instead, they viewed our achievement as causing diplomatic tension between Korea and Japan,” explained Gu. “However, the return of the Joseon Dynasty-Uigwe was done without making any payment; so it is indeed one of the most successful returns as it also has great historical value.” Such attitudes by the government show that it needs to cooperate with private organizations and individuals much more willingly than in the past to better enhance the probability of bringing cultural assets back to their rightful place.