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CHA chief hopes for ‘progress’ in repatriation of Buddhist relics

By Choi Si-young

Published : Feb. 1, 2024 - 16:36

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A Goryeo-era Lamaistic reliquary from the 14th century, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Hyemun) A Goryeo-era Lamaistic reliquary from the 14th century, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Hyemun)

The chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration said Thursday he is looking to “make some progress” in the talks on the repatriation of Buddhist objects, at his scheduled meeting with officials from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Talks on the repatriation of a Goryeo-era (918-1392) Buddhist reliquary will resume in Boston on Monday amid waning expectations for a breakthrough. The museum has maintained that it can return only the sarira part from inside the reliquary, since the Buddhist relic was legally acquired from a dealer.

Monday’s talks mark the first-ever negotiation in which Korean government officials will take part in person -- a change prompted by first lady Kim Keon Hee’s call for the relic’s repatriation made in April 2023, during President Yoon Seok Yeol’s state visit to the US.

“That was a turning point,” CHA chief Choi Eung-chon said of Kim’s intervention, noting, however, that the local activist group, which had held previous rounds of talks with the museum over the relics, had also played a role. Former Buddhist monk Hyemun heads the group.

“We’re leaving (for Boston) with every contingency,” Choi added, without providing further details. CHA officials also declined to comment on either what Choi meant or the issue in general.

Korean government authorities had long held the opinion that the pair -- the sarira and the container -- should be repatriated as one whole piece until last year, when they openly entertained the idea of repatriating just the sarira for the first time. This is because the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest Buddhist order in Korea, whose temple is believed to have once housed the relics, said it was willing to bring back the sarira first. A representative from the group will attend Monday’s negotiations.

Negotiations over the relics began in 2009 but fell apart in 2013, when Korea sent over its final notice to the museum, making it clear the pair should be returned together. Talks resumed in November last year but ended without compromise, according to Hyemun, who called for the negotiations as the activist group chief.

When asked about any changes in the US museum’s position, Karen Frascona, the MFA, Boston’s marketing and communications director, told The Korea Herald: “It would be premature on our part to share any information prior to that conversation.”