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Bid to smuggle out 92 Korean cultural artifacts foiled

Books from the 17th to 20th century that were prevented from being smuggled out of Korea (CHA)
Books from the 17th to 20th century that were prevented from being smuggled out of Korea (CHA)

DAEJEON--The Cultural Heritage Administration and Daejeon Metropolitan Police Agency on Tuesday jointly announced that 11 suspects who attempted to smuggle out 92 valuable Korean cultural artifacts have been caught.

The two agencies also unveiled the items the suspects allegedly tried to take out of the country during a press briefing held at Daejeon Metropolitan Police Agency on Tuesday.

“We started working together with the CHA from 2018,” Kim Jae-chun, an official from Daejeon Metropolitan Police Agency, said during the briefing. He added that they were able to catch the suspects after police obtained intelligence.

Out of 101 items police confiscated, 92 are considered valuable items as they are “general movable cultural property,” which indicates items like books, paintings, sculptures and crafts that are more than 50 years old and have historical or artistic value. These 92 items will be stored at the National Palace Museum of Korea.

According to the two agencies, they found that the suspects had attempted to send some of the cultural heritage items like books, wooden items and vases via Express Mail Service, while hiding others in their luggage to go through airport security checkpoints from Dec. 29, 2013, to Nov. 1, 2020.

“When smuggling out books, they wrapped them around with other books and newspapers to make it difficult to detect them,” CHA official Kim Jong-min said.

Books the smugglers attempted to send out of the country were mainly from the 17th to 20th centuries and were printed using wooden blocks, the CHA said. It also highlighted that the books included valuable documents that show the social conditions of the late Joseon era as well as the academic trends of Joseon’s neo-Confucianism.

Wooden items included tables, item boxes, money boxes and black lacquer boxes that were created from the 19 century at the earliest. The CHA said one of the money boxes is especially valuable because “gapjingyecheneuigyesobi” is written inside it, which indicates the time that it was created. The box is estimated to have been created in May or late spring of either 1784 or 1844, during the Joseon era.
Vases from the 11th to 20th century that were prevented from being smuggled out of Korea (CHA)
Vases from the 11th to 20th century that were prevented from being smuggled out of Korea (CHA)

“Vases were from the 11th century to 20th century,” Shim Ji-yeon, another official from the CHA, said during the press briefing.

They include everyday vases that were used to for water, alcohol and oil, as well as vases used for special occasions like ritual ceremonies, the official added. The vases were hidden in wooden boxes to be smuggled out of the country.

According to Daejeon police, the 11 suspects were from five different countries -- four from Korea, three from Japan, two from China, one from Vietnam and one from Germany. The foreigners came to Korea as tourists and purchased the cultural properties at antique art stores with the aim to smuggle them out to countries like Japan, China and Vietnam.

A CHA official added that it will continue to work with relevant agencies, including the Korea Customs Service and Korea Post, to preserve and prevent cultural heritage items from being smuggled out.

“We will continue to collect intelligence on smugglers to track and arrest them,” police officer Kim Jae-chun added.

Under current law, cultural heritage smugglers can be sentenced to more than three years in prison.

By Song Seung-hyun (
Korea Herald daum