Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong has rekindled controversy over the issue of two ancient Korean Buddhist statues stolen from Japan last year with his recent remarks endorsing their return to Japanese owners. He reportedly said during a meeting with his Japanese counterpart last week that the Korean government would make due efforts to ensure the statues would be sent back to Japan. Yoo was quoted by a Japanese daily as reiterating the position on the following day.
A year ago, a Korean crime ring stole the statues from a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple on the western Japanese island of Tsushima and smuggled them here in a botched attempt to sell them to local private collectors. In June, three of the arrested thieves were sentenced to three to four years in prison.
A Korean court earlier approved an injunction request filed by a temple in Korea to ban the return of one of the retrieved statues, which is presumed to have been taken from it by Japanese pirates in the 14h century. The other ― there has been no clue as to how it was taken to Japan ― has been under custody of the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea pending a final decision on whether to send it back.
“While I am obliged to wait for the judiciary’s decision, I believe that they should naturally be returned, if rational thought is given to the matter,” Yoo was quoted by the Asahi Shimbun as saying Saturday.
Some critics here have accused the minister of making “reckless” remarks, saying he should have watched his mouth. But our view is that he struck a proper note when asked by the Japanese official and media about the Korean government’s stance on the issue. Giving an answer negative to returning the statues would have run against legal sense and international norms. It would also have been inappropriate and awkward for him to have avoided the question.
As this newspaper has noted, logical reasoning should prevail over emotional approaches in handling the stolen statues. It should be realized that the issue of retrieving cultural properties abroad cannot be solved by emotional methods that lack historical, moral and logical grounds.
It is right to return both of the statues to their Japanese owners who had cherished them for centuries until they were stolen. It can hardly be expected that the ongoing trial requested by the Korean temple to claim one of them will prove that it was taken away by Japanese pirates in the 14th century. The other should have been sent back immediately on its retrieval as there is no suspicion that it was acquired in an unjust way.
Their return would help provide a new momentum for efforts to retrieve other Korean cultural assets plundered by Japan, especially during its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.