South Korea: Controversies on the Return of Korean Royal Books

Uigwe (의궤 in Korean) is a collection of Korean Royal books that was looted by French troops during the French invasion of Korea's Kanghwa Island in 1866. It finally returned home after 145 years on May 2011.

The South Korean government celebrated the return with a large-scale traditional ceremony on June 11 and decided to exhibit it at the National Museum of History from July 19 to September 18. However, controversies remain as the return of the Korean Royal books is deeply connected with Korea's troubled modern history.

As the return of the royal books was achieved after long years of tedious negotiation with the French government, this return has been warmly welcomed by many. What ignited the various controversies was the fact that the return was conditional, a de facto ‘rent’ of the treasure rather than a permanent return. The Korean government is required to renew the agreement it made with the French government, regarding keeping the artefacts in South Korea, every five years.

But most Koreans are still thrilled at the news. Bloggger JooYoo who participated in the welcoming ceremony on June 11, expresses [ko] how people are overwhelmed with joy over the return of the national treasure:

외규장각 의궤는 비록 ‘대여'라는 이름으로 계속 연장을 해야한다고는 하지만 중요한 건 ‘컴백홈'을 했다는 것!

Although the royal book return was a conditional return, under the title of “rent”, which requires a continuous renewal of the agreement, the most important thing is that we finally got them back here.

Uigwe is highly regarded treasure for its beauty and its historical value in understanding Korean tradition. Blogger Cookiedesiger reflects [ko] this view:

예로부터 내려온 것은 작은 못 하나라도 민족의 혈이 흐르는 보물이 아닌가 합니다.

Traditionally inherited things are precious. The spirit of nation runs through them. Even the smallest nail contains the spirit.

National pride and humiliation mingled

The decision to rent the treasure was based on consideration of French domestic law. And in the diplomatic world, it is interpreted as the French government practically allowing the return. But that explanation could not satisfy Koreans. Blogger Binbini argues this negotiation was unfair and short-sighted [ko]:

정부와 외교 통상부가 하는 말을 보시라. 갱신 형식으로 사실상 영구 대여가 된다. 일단 돌아온 문화재를 빼앗아 가겠느냐. […]원래 우리나라에 있던 문화재를 강제로 약탈해 갔습니다.

Look at what the Head of Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: ‘It is actually “a permanent rent” as long as we continue to renew the agreement’ and ‘What would they do about it? Once the treasure arrived in South Korea, they couldn't possibly take this away from us.’ […] They've forgotten that it was looted during the French invasion.

The National Museum of History in Seoul

The National Museum of History located in Seoul, South Korea. Image by Flickr user RadioHat. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

That disagreement is intertwined with the paradoxical combination of national pride and humiliation. For example, blogger A Small World in the World expresses his resentment [ko] toward the attitude of the French government and its decision to allow the ‘limited’ return:

솔직히 남의 나라에서 약탈해 간 문화재를 이정도까지 완벽하게 보관해 줬다는 점에서는 프랑스에 감사했습니다.[…]애초 외규장각 의궤는 우리나라 겁니다. 긴 세월 남의 나라 도서관에 있다가 원래 있어야 할 곳으로 돌아오는 것 뿐입니다. 우리나라 입장에서 보면 나쁜 놈들이 뺐어간 내 물건 되찾아 오는 겁니다.

Frankly speaking, I felt grateful to the French government for well preserving our national treasure for many years. [However] Uigwe is our national treasure in the first place. It has been stolen and kept in a foreign country’s library for many years. [Thus] From the Korean perspective, getting it back from France is to retrieve what we rightly deserve to have.

Then the blogger continues:

더구나 외규장각 의궤에 관련해선 프랑스는 우리국가를 상대로 대놓고 거짓말을 한 전력이 있습니다. 고속철도 도입 당시 프랑스 일본 독일 등의 고속철에 대한 논의가 있었을 때, 우리나라가 프랑스 TGV를 선택한 결정적인 이유가 프랑스 대통령이 약속한 외규장각 도서 반환에 대한 약속 때문이라고 해도 과언이 아닙니다. 당시 미래를 생각하면 일본 고속철도가 더 나은 선택이라는 말이 있었지만, 저 약속 때문에 프랑스 TGV를 선택한 것입니다.

Moreover, the French government told an outright lie to us in the past regarding the return of royal books. When we were torn between choosing France, Japan and Germany in giving a contract to build high-speed rail here in South Korea, the French president made a strong promise to return the royal text. This promise was one of the deciding reasons that we adopted French TGV before those of other countries. At that time, some people suggested that Japanese rail technology is a better choice for the future, but we still chose French TGV, just because we so badly wanted to retrieve our royal text.

Although the blogger did not articulate it explicitly, it was not hard to read between the lines that his post reflects Koreans’ view on the colonial era. His post title read ‘Royal Text Return: While Resenting Japanese Occupation, Why are We Reacting so Generously toward French Invasion?‘ [ko] and note that the blogger chose the words “outright lie” in the first sentence. He used such an emotive word about a ‘negotiation’ situation where costs and benefits only matter and cold calculations are the only language two sides use.

Nonetheless, pushing the Korean public to accept the limited return of the treasure seems myopic. That does not encompass public views and feelings toward their tragic history and how their views affect current Korean society.

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