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[Lee Kyong-hee] Unsung heroes who saved our nation’s jewels

About this time 70 years ago the Korean War reversed again. Alarmed by UN-South Korean troops rapidly advancing northward, China entered the war to prevent their permanent occupation along its border. Massive human-wave attacks buckled the Allied Forces, obliterating their “home by Christmas” dream.

“My ROK 1st Division and the US 24th Division crossed the Chongchon River heading south on Nov. 28. It was snowing,” recalls General Paik Sun-yup in his memoir “From Pusan to Panmunjom.” “Most of my officers and men were bewildered that the mighty ROK 1st Division was withdrawing without a single slugfest worthy of the name.”

In Seoul, Dr. Kim Chewon, director of the National Museum of Korea, saw scores of US tanks returning to the capital along with dazed and exhausted soldiers. That was proof enough for Kim that rumors of a wholesale retreat were valid and the museum’s collection was in peril once again.

During their occupation of Seoul months earlier, North Korean troops attempted to ship the museum’s most valuable treasures to Pyongyang. But the pillaging was thwarted by museum employees who used every imaginable excuse to stall packing, and by UN forces who recaptured the city on Sept. 28.

Kim was certain if the museum’s collection fell into the hands of North Koreans a second time, they would not be stalled again and it would be impossible to recover the museum’s assets. But relocating hundreds of museum crates containing invaluable treasures seemed equally impossible amid dire transportation constraints.

The urgency of the situation rings in Kim’s letter to Dr. George Kate, head of the Division of Arts and Monuments, General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), in Tokyo, dated Dec. 2, 1950. (US National Archives and Records Administration; Declassified in 2002)

“If World War III breaks out, or if the Korean War continues in much larger scale, I sincerely wish that SCAP help us to bring Korean museum treasures to a safer place. Since only US authorities can provide transportation, you might be able to help us from Tokyo. There are only few people in this country who understand the necessity of such measures.”

Education Minister Paek Nak-chun agreed with Kim that the National Museum’s collection should be evacuated far south to Busan. He wrote a letter of approval in English to maintain confidentiality.

Eugene I. Knez, director of the US Information Service in Busan and retired US Army captain, became the angel that Kim desperately needed.

Knez believed Ambassador John J. Muccio would think moving the museum objects was the responsibility of the South Korean government. And, if the local and foreign press discovered a member of the US embassy staff was involved in the museum’s evacuation, it would be regarded as a sure omen of Seoul falling again into enemy hands.

“Dr. Kim came to see me a few times to persuade me to provide the necessary transportation. He continued to tell me that unless I provided the transportation all would be lost because the North Korean authorities would not be fooled twice,” Knez wrote in a contribution to Kim’s memoir “Untold Stories of Gyeongbok Palace” (Tamgudang Publishers, 1991)

“If I was associated with such a move and something went wrong, it might very well mean that I would receive a severe reprimand and possibly a dismissal from government service. But I finally decided to assist but to do so secretly.”

Knez arranged both for motor and rail transportation. Thanks to his military service, he was aware that the freight trains carrying supplies to the Seoul area usually returned to Busan empty. He persuaded an American officer in charge and managed to secure one of the trains. The US Army Transportation Corps provided a truck.

On Dec. 6, a railroad boxcar left Seoul Station, carrying hundreds of crates containing the collections of the National Museum, the Yi Royal Household Museum and the Gyujanggak Library of Seoul National University. The car also accommodated Kim’s party of 16, including museum employees and their families.

The train arrived at Busan Station four days later. As it traveled south, Knez had talked to military checkpoints to arrange its passage. Then he flew to Busan and met the train as it came into the station.

Similar covert operations were repeated a few times over the following months. Eventually, a total of 18,883 objects of the National Museum packed into 430 crates took refuge in a government warehouse, the only fire-resistant one at the time, in Busan. Discussions continued between the Korean and US authorities about their relocation abroad. But the wartime capital remained safe until the July 27, 1953 ceasefire halted the fighting. Had the US assisted in relocating the museum properties abroad, it would have been the second time.

On July 25, 1950, 139 objects at the Gyeongju branch of the National Museum, including Silla gold crowns, were moved to Daegu, by orders of President Syngman Rhee. In a cable to SCAP general headquarters, dated July 28, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson also recommended special protection be immediately given to the Gyeongju region.

These treasures, along with the Bank of Korea’s gold bullion, were moved to the vault of the Bank of America in San Francisco. Before being repatriated in 1959, they constituted part of the “Masterpieces of Korean Art” exhibition taken to eight American cities in 1957-1958. The exhibition introduced Korea’s cultural legacy and postwar potential to the world for the first time.

Today, the National Museum of Korea is the sixth-largest museum in the world boasting a collection of over 400,000 objects and drawing some 3.5 million visitors annually. It has a network of 13 regional museums across the country. It seems the handful of undaunted museum employees and US personnel who protected the nation’s treasures from the ravages of war, ultimately making such growth possible, deserve much more recognition. 

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.