The Jogye Order, Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, on Friday protested the planned donation of a missing relic to the government.
The “Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon” was stolen in 2008 and its whereabouts is still unknown, but the rights of ownership are being transferred by a man who was awarded legal ownership of the 15th century text by a court in February.
In a press release issued Friday night, the Jogye Order questioned whether the original source of the text had been properly investigated. It points to court testimony made by a man last year who claimed to have stolen it from one of the order’s temples.
|The photo shows a part of the original Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon (left), which explains the Korean writing system of Hangeul, and a copy of the Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Kansongbon (right). (Yonhap News)|
The Jogye Order also questioned why an individual from the private sector is donating the priceless cultural property to the government.
Without the order’s knowledge, the state-run Cultural Heritage Administration had planned a special event for Monday for the legal owner of the missing copy of the Hunminjeongeum to hand over his ownership to the state.
The Hunminjeongeum is a text explaining Korea’s writing system, Hangeul, invented by a team led by King Sejong in 1443.
“We did not know about this at all,” said Park Sang-jun of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism’s cultural heritage division. “We think it was unethical of the government to do something like this without telling us. They should’ve at least told us.”
The Buddhist sect has been arguing that antique dealer Jo Yong-hun, the current owner, purchased the book from a man named Seo in 1999. The sect claims Seo stole the book from Gwangheung Temple in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, in the late 1990s. Seo last year testified in court that he stole the book from the temple.
The book is currently missing, as Bae Ik-gi ― who stole the book from Jo in 2008 and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for the theft ― would not reveal where the book was. The court in February awarded Jo the legal ownership of the book.
Park of Jogye Order said the book should be returned to the Gwangheung Temple.
“I think Seo’s court testimony tells all,” he told The Korea Herald. “If the looter says he stole it from the temple, then it should be returned to the temple. Say someone robbed your stuff and sold it to someone, and that someone had it stolen by someone else. No matter where the item is, it is still yours and should be returned to you, not to someone random or someone who took it from you from the first place.”
Meanwhile, Park Yong-gi from the Cultural Heritage Administration said the decision was made in order to protect the missing book.
“Our priority is to locate the book and have it returned to the right hands as soon as possible,” said Park. “Bae won’t return the book to Jo. But maybe he’ll return it to the state.”
Bae’s announcement that he had found a copy of the Hunminjeongeum, which he claimed at the time to have found while cleaning out his house, caused much excitement as previously there had been only one known copy of it. That copy, National Treasure No. 70, is held by the Kansong Art Museum, a private museum in Seoul.
By Claire Lee and Lee Woo-young