Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong found himself in hot water after his Japanese counterpart, told reporters that the Korean official showed willingness to return Korean Buddhist statues that had been stolen from Japan and brought back to Korea.
Japanese media outlets, including Asahi Shimbun, Nihon Keizei Shimbun and broadcaster NHK, on Saturday reported that Yoo told Japanese Culture Minister Hakubun Shimomura at a closed-door meeting of culture ministers from the two countries and China that a bronze statue of the standing Tathagata Buddha and a statue of the seated Gwanseeum Bosal (Goddess of Mercy) should be sent back to Japan.
“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 as saying at a meeting in Gwangju held Sept. 27-28 by Asahi Shimbun.
He was referring to two statues that were found to have been smuggled to Korea earlier this year from temples in Tsushima, Japan. However, the artifacts were allegedly looted from Korea about 600 years ago. At the request of Buseoksa Temple, which claims original ownership of the pieces, the Daejeon District Court granted an injunction against the return of the artifacts to Japan until the nature of their delivery to Japan six centuries ago is verified. The Korean authorities are currently studying the artifacts.
The Japanese culture minister’s comments created a stir in both countries. While Japanese media played up of the “willingness to return looted cultural property” of the Korean government, Korean media slammed Yoo for making hasty comments about a controversial issue that is still pending. Some civic groups have said it is Japan that should first return all stolen cultural heritage before the two pieces are returned. There are reportedly more than 66,000 cultural artifacts in Japan believed to have been looted from Korea.
Yoo on Saturday afternoon said that he was using diplomatic rhetoric. “I said we should wait for the Korean judiciary’s decision and reaffirmed that we will follow the international treaty that holds that ‘any looted or stolen cultural assets should be repatriated,’” he told the press.
A ministry official said the government was considering expressing regret over the Japanese minister’s leaking of the events of closed-door bilateral talks, which are regarded as confidential.
By Bae Ji-sook (firstname.lastname@example.org)