The U.S. government will continue efforts to return stolen artifacts from abroad although the process could be quite arduous, the chief of the Seoul regional office of the primary investigative arm for the U.S. customs authorities said.
"The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations has a commitment between the United States of America and partnering countries like South Korea to combat the illegal trade in stolen art and antiquities," HSI Attache Seoul Cho Taekuk said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Friday. "We will continue to investigate and return these priceless treasures whenever possible."
The 42-year-old Korean-American took a decisive role in the U.S. government's recent repatriation of nine ancient Korean seals and other Korean treasures by discovering that they were stolen by American soldiers during the 1950-53 Korean War.
In November, HSI agents seized the seals from the family of a deceased U.S. Marine lieutenant who served in the war. Among them is the Hwangjejibo (Seal of the Emperor) that King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) made upon the establishment of the Korean Empire in 1897. The nine seals were returned to South Korea last month when U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country for a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
HSI is in charge of criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. It has repatriated approximately 7,200 cultural artifacts to 27 countries since 2007, according to Cho.
"Returning a nation's cultural heritage promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens while significantly protecting the world's cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations."
Most recently, the HSI returned a looted painting to Poland in April, a Nazi German looted painting to Poland in February, a 15th century manuscript to the Italian government in January and stolen antiquities to India in January.
"The theft and trafficking of cultural heritage and art is a tradition as old as the cultures they represent. What has changed is the ability of cultural pirates to acquire, transport, and sell valuable cultural property and art swiftly, easily and stealthily," Cho said.
"These criminals operate on a global scale without regard for laws, borders, nationalities or the significance of the treasures they smuggle. One of HSI's many missions is to investigate, seize, and return looted art and antiquities from abroad."
But the recent series of repatriations of Korean treasures was made possible by "tireless efforts" of HSI and the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea.
They are an example of "what can be accomplished when law enforcement partners and government leaders from around the world work together in an effort to ensure that stolen and looted priceless cultural artifacts like these are returned to their rightful owner," he stressed. "The process can be quite arduous but in the end, truly rewarding." (Yonhap)