Royal books looted by France may come back in May

  • Published : Dec 20, 2010 - 17:31
  • Updated : Dec 20, 2010 - 17:31
Korea’s ancient royal books, looted by the French navy in the late 19th century and kept by the National Library of France until now, may return to Korea in May next year, officials at the Foreign Ministry said Monday.

Their comments came one month after President Lee Myung-bak and his French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy agreed on the return of 297 books of “Uigwe,” or royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) on the sidelines of the G20 Seoul Summit on Nov. 12.

Sarkozy said France would loan the 297 Uigwe books on a five-year basis to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, after which the loan will be automatically renewed every five years.

“Following the summit, follow-up negotiations are under way at the working level, whether the royal books should be digitized before repatriation,” said an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
One of the Joseon-period royal books set to return from France (Yonhap News)

“How to transport the 297 books ― whether we should divide them into several groups and transport them separately to prevent an incident ― is also being discussed but details are not confirmed yet,” he said.

The prospect of the return of the Uigwe books from France has not been very bright due to a strong resistance from curators at the National Library of France, who recently started a petition against Sarkozy’s announcement. They reportedly demanded digitization of the Uigwe books which many observers believe is aimed at delaying the loan.

The curators are opposed to the five-year loan because it runs counter to French law, which prohibits the leasing of a public collection. The Uigwe books are registered as French property.

The Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, which is in charge of preserving and protecting cultural heritage, said the agency is not aware of details of the Foreign Ministry’s working-level negotiations with France.

“All the negotiations are planned and conducted by the Foreign Ministry. We do not have detailed information,” said Jo Dong-joo, deputy director of the international affairs division at the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea.

A government official at the Korean Embassy in France, who was in charge of fine-tuning the bilateral agreement, said the French government is showing a strong will to implement Sarkozy’s announcement as soon as possible.

Uigwe books are unique in that they display both text and hand-drawn illustrations of significant rites and ceremonies of the royal family of Joseon, including weddings, funerals, banquets and receiving of foreign missions as well as other state rituals and celebrations.

Experts say such royal recordings do not exist in any other Asian countries.

The 297 Uigwe books in France were made in the 17th and 18th centuries and stored in Oegyujanggak, an annex of Gyujanggak, or the Royal Library, on Ganghwa Island, ironically, for safe keeping against invaders.

The first Uigwe book is believed to have been published during the reign of King Taejo, the first Joseon king, in the 14th century but the surviving Uigwe books are mostly from the 17th century.

By Kim Yoon-mi (yoonmi@heraldcorp.com)