Royal books finally come home

By 김후란
  • Published : Apr 14, 2011 - 17:44
  • Updated : Apr 14, 2011 - 19:13

Joseon-period manuscripts return to Seoul on loan 145 years after they were looted by the French

The first batch of Korea’s ancient royal books, looted by the French army in the late 19th century and kept by France until recently, arrived in Seoul on Thursday afternoon, their ownership still remaining in the hands of France.

The 75 books of “Uigwe,” or manuscripts for royal protocols created during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), were delivered in three boxes from Incheon International Airport to the National Museum of Korea in a shock-proof vehicle, in the first air transport from the National Library of France in Paris. A total of 297 books are scheduled to be delivered in four separate journeys by May 27.

Under the agreement between Korea and France, France will loan the 297 books on a five-year basis to Korea, after which the loan will be automatically renewed continually. The agreement also stipulates that some Uigwe can be taken to France in 2015 and 2016 for an exhibition in France as a cultural exchange program between the two countries.

Choung Byoung-gug, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, brushed off concerns that France might want the returned books back at the National Library of France once the five-year loan ends.

“In that case, the two countries are required in advance to discuss the matter. But I believe it is meaningless to talk hypothetically and it is my firm belief that this is an actual return of the books,” Choung told reporters at the National Museum of Korea.

He said the arrival of the royal books was possible on the back of the decision by leaders of Korea and France, despite long and tough negotiations amid big differences in the legal systems and public sentiment in the two countries.

Park Byeng-sen, a Korean librarian who first discovered the royal books at the French library that were mistakenly classified as Chinese in 1975, has been claiming that the books should not be loaned but returned for good. She was mindful that a change in the administration in the next five years in Korea might give France a chance to reverse the loan. 
From left: Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Choung Byoung-gug, the National Library of France curator Laurent Hericher and the National Museum of Korea director-general Kim Young-na stand behind a wooden crate containing “Uigwe,” Korea’s ancient royal books, at the National Museum upon its arrival from Paris on Thursday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

“I completely understand Park’s stance but I would like to ask understanding from the public that the bilateral agreement not only considered the bilateral relationship between the two countries but international practices,” Choung said.

The Uigwe contain records and illustrations of procedures and ceremonies conducted for royal weddings, funerals, banquets and the receiving of foreign missions as well as cultural activities of the Joseon royal family. Noting their rarity, UNESCO put the Uigwe on its Memory of the World Register in 2007.

The Uigwe were kept in Oegyujanggak, an annex of Gyujanggak, or Royal Library, which was built on Ganghwa Island in 1782 by King Jeongjo.

However, some of the books in Oegyujanggak were looted by the French navy in 1866 and the rest were lost in fire.

Choung said the 297 Uiqwe returning from France were specially created for kings to read and that 30 of them are originals.

“Today, 75 books, including eight original books, have arrived. It will have a positive impact on retrieving the many Korean cultural relics that were taken away against our will,” he said.

After the return of Uigwe is completed in May, the National Museum of Korea plans to hold a special exhibition from July 19 to Sept. 18 showcasing some of the returned royal books.

“After the first round of the exhibition, the government will consider holding exhibitions across the nation, including in Ganghwa Island where the royal books were originally kept,” Choung said.

Meanwhile, another transfer of Uigwe books from Japan, originally planned to take place within the first half of this year under the Nov. 8 agreement between President Lee and Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is expected to be delayed due to last month‘s earthquake in Japan, he said.

They were supposed to be returned to Korea once the Diet approved the bilateral agreement.

By Kim Yoon-mi (