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Buddhist order protests state ownership of missing relic

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the nation’s largest Buddhist sect, on Friday protested the planned donation of a missing relic to the government by an individual.

In a press release issued Friday night, the Jogye Order questioned whether a proper investigation into the original source of the “Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon,” which it claims was looted from one of its temples, had taken place. It also questioned why an individual is donating the priceless cultural property to the government. 

The inside of Gwangheung Temple from which the “Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon” was allegedly stolen (Jogye Order)
The inside of Gwangheung Temple from which the “Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon” was allegedly stolen (Jogye Order)

Unbeknownst to the Jogye Order, the state-run Cultural Heritage Administration had planned a special event for Monday during which the current legal owner of the missing copy of the Hunminjeongeum will hand over his ownership to the state.

The Hunminjeongeum is a text explaining the Korean writing system Hangeul, invented by King Sejong in 1443.

“We did not know about this at all,” said Park Sang-jun of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism’s cultural heritage division. “We think it was unethical of the government to do something like this without telling us. They should’ve at least told us.”

Jo Yong-hun, the current owner and antique dealer, had purchased the book from a man named Seo in 1999. The Buddhist sect  claims Seo looted the book from Gwangheung Temple in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, in the late 1990s. Seo last year testified in court that he did indeed steal the book from the temple. 

The book is currently missing, as Bae Ik-gi -- who stole the book from Jo in 2008 and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for the theft -- would not reveal where he has placed the book. The court in February awarded Jo the legal ownership of the book.

Park said the book should be returned to the temple.

“I think Seo’s court testimony tells all,” he told The Korea Herald. “If the looter says he stole it from the temple, then it should be returned to the temple. Say someone robbed your stuff and sold it to someone, and that someone had it stolen by someone else. No matter where the item is, it is still yours and should be returned to you, not to someone random or someone who took it from you from the first place.”

Meanwhile, Park Yong-gi from the Cultural Heritage Administration said the decision was made in order to protect the missing book.

“Our priority is to locate the book and have it returned to good hands as soon as possible,” said Park. “Bae won’t return the book to Jo. But maybe he’ll return it to the state.”

The discovery of the Hunminjeongeum, which Bae at the time claimed he had found while cleaning out his house, in 2008 caused much excitement as previously there had been only one known copy of it. The copy, National Treasure No. 70, is held by the Kansong Art Museum, a private museum in Seoul.

By Claire Lee and Lee Woo-young 


Korea Herald daum