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[Lee Jae-min] Royal books come home after 145 years

Although no official ceremony was held, the wave of exultation covered the entire country when Asiana Airlines’ B777 touched down at Incheon Airport last Thursday. What emerged from the cargo section was the first batch of the 297 Royal Ceremonial Books, taken by the French military from a royal library in 1866, marking a historic return after 145 years. The books were taken from Ganghwa Island, a gateway to the outside world in 1866, and are now coming back to Korea through the gateway of 2011, Incheon Airport. The two places are in fact just 14 kilometers apart. Once all four batches are repatriated by the end of May, the ceremonial books will be on exhibit for the public at the National Museum, starting sometime in July. 

These royal books have come back to Korean soil through a “renewable lease” rather than full repatriation of ownership. The lease is to be renewed every five years and the indefinite extension of the renewal is said to constitute the common understanding of the two parties. In other words, this can be called a de facto repatriation of the artifacts. As French law prohibits transfer of ownership of its national cultural assets, the ownership issue has long been the stickiest point since the repatriation of the royal books was broached almost 20 years ago.

The final breakthrough came when Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Nicolas Sarkozy agreed upon the compromise in Seoul last November on the sidelines of the G20: i.e., the title remains with France but Korea gains possession. As there is no legal mechanism to force France to return the books (this obligation only came into existence in 1970 and is only applicable to cultural properties that have illegally changed hands since then), and as it is equally infeasible for Korea to wait for France to change its general law for this particular case, the renewable lease formula seems an appropriate solution at the moment.

Considering that these books signify the spirit and identity of the Joseon Dynasty, de facto repatriation today would be more worthwhile than de jure repatriation at some unknown point in time in the future. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the legal impediments to the full legal recovery of these artifacts will be ever cleared.

Irrespective of the existence of the obligation to return, the legitimacy of Admiral Roze’s order 145 years ago to destroy cultural properties in Ganghwa Island and to carry some of them to France when he retreated from the island cannot be sustained. That said, the friendship and cooperation from Paris in the course of negotiating the repatriation of the books for the past 20 years should be highly appreciated. Frequent high-level encounters between the two countries in recent years in the context of the G20 meeting preparations (Korea as the host country of the meeting last year and France as the one for this year) have further cemented the friendship and mutual trust. As long as the friendship and trust are there, the issue of legal title or lease should be moot.

At the same time, this return provides Korea with an opportunity to recalibrate its strategy concerning other Korean cultural artifacts abroad. According to the count of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, a total of 107,857 Korean cultural artifacts are now outside Korea. This number, however, is somewhat misleading. The fact that a particular cultural artifact is in foreign hands does not necessarily mean that it was illegally smuggled out of the country, making repatriation neither justified nor required. Quite a few artifacts have been legally taken out of the country, then sold through apparently legitimate transactions. There is no way of getting these artifacts back from the legal owner in foreign countries and institutions except for voluntary donation or re-purchase by Korea. The objects to which the repatriation effort should be directed, both legally and diplomatically, are the ones that were illegally smuggled or taken out of the country by means of force.

So, simply counting the number of the artifacts outside Korea does not say much about what can be done in the future. What is necessary instead is cataloguing these artifacts and evaluating the individual situations through which they ended up in the hands of their current owners. Obviously, this is a daunting task which requires a great deal of resources and commitment. At the same time, it is a task that cannot be postponed. In this particular area, Korea is running against the clock: The longer it waits, the more difficult it becomes to trace the transactions.

Again, a big and warm welcome to the returned royal books. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.
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