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France to return looted Korean royal books

Almost 300 royal books from the Joseon Dynasty, looted during the 19th century French invasion of Korea, will make their official return to Seoul on a permanent lease starting March 28, the National Museum of Korea said Wednesday.

Officials of the National Museum signed an official pact on the return of 297 royal book with the National Library of France in Paris, where they are currently located.

The French library agreed to return the books in four installments from March 28 to May 31 this year.

The royal books, called “Uigwe” in Korean, recorded both text and hand-drawn illustrations of significant royal rites and ceremonies of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

In 1866, the French invaded Korea’s western island of Ganghwa and set fire to a royal library on the island, Oegyujanggak ― an annex of Gyujanggak library in Seoul ― after taking 297 Uigwe volumes and other royal artifacts.

The pact on Wednesday ends the two countries’ long dispute and negotiations over the return of Uigwe, which started in the mid-1970s after Park Byeng-sen, a Korean-born librarian, discovered the books at the National Library of France while working there.

Last year, finally, President Lee Myung-bak and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy came to an agreement on a “five-year renewable lease” of Uigwe on the sidelines of the G20 Seoul Summit.

The deal was re-confirmed between Park Heung-shin, Seoul’s ambassador to Paris, and Paul Jean-Ortiz, a French Foreign Ministry director handling Asian affairs on Feb. 7 of this year.

All 297 of the repatriated royal books are reportedly original versions of Uigwe, that were specially printed for only the king to read.

The books are made of “chochuji,” a superior version of Korean traditional mulberry paper “hanji.”

The covers are made of silk with splendid patterns, whereas copied versions have covers made of hemp cloth.

Of the 297 books, 30 volumes reportedly do not have any copied versions remaining in Korea.

Once returned, the books will be housed at the National Museum of Korea. The museum will hold a series of special exhibitions and events upon the arrival of the books.

Information on the returning royal books will soon be available online, while more academic research on Uigwe is on its way, the National Museum said.

By Claire Lee (