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‘Uigwe’ historian dies in Paris

Historian Park Byeng-sen, who contributed enormously to the return of Korea’s looted ancient royal texts, Uigwe, died of colorectal cancer in Paris, France, on Tuesday. She was 83.

The historian, who studied history at Seoul National University, moved to Paris at age 27. She had heard that the royal books of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), looted by French troops during its 19th century invasion of Korea, were housed at the National Library of France.

She started working at the national French institution in 1967, and eventually discovered the royal texts there in 1975. Following her report of the existence of Uigwe, the Korean Embassy in France officially requested the return of the volumes to Korea in 1992. Park also discovered Jikji, a Korean Buddhist document that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), at the French library during her time there.

Last November, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and President Lee Myung-bak finally agreed on a five-year renewable lease scheme for 297 volumes of Uigwe at APEC and the G20 Seoul Summit. The final batch of the text arrived in Seoul in May and Park flew here to attend the official celebration in June.

The historian was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2009 and had surgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Suwon, Korea, in January 2010. She underwent two more surgeries after returning to Paris while working on a book chronicling the series of events that took place during the French invasion of Korea in 1866. In spite of the surgeries, however, her condition did not improve, and she fell into a coma on Saturday. Her last wish was to have someone complete her unfinished book.
Historian Park Byeng-sen attends an official ceremony honoring the return of Uigwe from France in Seoul on June 11. (Yonhap News)
Historian Park Byeng-sen attends an official ceremony honoring the return of Uigwe from France in Seoul on June 11. (Yonhap News)

Park, who never married and lived alone in Paris for most of her life, reportedly told her relatives that she’d like to be cremated and have her ashes scattered on a beach near Normandy, Northern France.

The Korean government, however, is considering burying Park at a national cemetery, though the historian obtained French citizenship in 1967. Park received two national medals ― one in 2007 and the other in 2011 ― from the Korean government for her contribution to the return of Uigwe.

A special memorial space has been prepared at the Korean Cultural Center in Paris, and Park’s remains will arrive in Seoul once the funeral in France is finished, the Culture Ministry said.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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