The Korea Herald


Appellate court rules against local temple claiming ownership of Buddhist statue stolen from Japan

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 1, 2023 - 20:30

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The Gilt Bronze Seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Statue (Yonhap) The Gilt Bronze Seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Statue (Yonhap)

DAEJEON -- An appellate court on Wednesday ruled against a Buddhist temple in a civil suit it filed to claim a 14th century statue taken away to Japan centuries ago, and stolen and brought back to South Korea a decade ago.

The 50.5-centimeter-tall Buddhist statue from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) was one of the two bronze statues Korean thieves stole from Kannon Temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, in October 2012.

Claiming its ownership, Buseok Temple in Seosan, 98 kilometers southwest of Seoul, filed the suit against the state, demanding the return of the statue currently stored at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in the central city of Daejeon.

In the first ruling in 2017, a district court ruled that Japan appears to have taken away the statue via "abnormal" means, ordering the statue to be returned to Buseok Temple.

The Daejeon High Court on Wednesday struck down the previous verdict and ruled that the statue should be returned to Japan.

The appellate court said there is evidence suggesting the statue was plundered by Japanese pirates and illegally transferred to Japan.

But the court acknowledged that Kannon Temple is entitled to the statue's ownership because the temple held it peacefully and openly for 60 years before the theft in 2012.

The court acknowledged the statue was produced by Buseok Temple from the Goryeo Dynasty, but said whether the current Buseok Temple is the same religious entity as the Goryeo-era temple has not been proven and thus it is difficult to confirm the modern temple's ownership of the statue.

"Nonetheless, a civil suit only determines the ownership, and the final issue of whether to return the cultural asset should further be determined via UNESCO agreements or the international law," the court said.

Buseok Temple immediately protested the ruling. Kim Byeong-ku, a lawyer representing the temple, said the temple plans to appeal the case. (Yonhap)