The fourth and final batch of the Joseon era Oegyujanggak Uigwe collection was returned to Korea from France last Friday. The final collection of 73 books from the Joseon royal archive was part of a larger collection looted more than 100 years ago during the 1866 French invasion of Ganghwa Island and have been kept since in the National Library of France.
Admittedly, the return of the ancient documents comes rather belatedly, but Koreans are nonetheless relieved that the important cultural artifacts have been brought back to where they belong. Another collection of ancient books, which had been taken to Japan during the Japanese colonial rule, is also to be returned soon, launching a series of repatriations of stolen artifacts.
The Oegyujanggak Uigwe collection was looted when France invaded Ganghwa Island in 1866. Oegyujanggak was a branch library of Gyujanggak, the royal archive where important documents and books were kept. It was located in Ganghwa Island to safeguard the collections from wars or natural disasters.
During the 1866 French invasion of the island, the French troops took key documents to their home country before setting fire to Oegyujanggak. The recently repatriated cluster of 297 books is called Uigwe, describing the protocols of royal ceremonies and rituals in the form of writings and drawings.
The repatriation process of these recorded artifacts began in 1993 when then-President Kim Young-sam and his French counterpart Francois Mitterrand agreed in principle to exchange national records. However, a 20-year delay ensued while the two sides failed to narrow their differences over the specifics. Then in 2010 President Lee Myung-bak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy restarted the process by agreeing to return the records on the permanent lease basis.
The international community favors returning cultural assets looted from other countries to their rightful owner nations. However, the actual repatriation process takes place very rarely. This is why the handover of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe collection is so significant and encouraging to other nations trying to get their ancient relics back.
The books from the royal archive plundered by the Japanese colonial regime during its occupation of Korea will also be returned soon. The Japanese Diet has ratified the publication exchange agreement concluded by Korea and Japan. The year 2011 will be marked as a year when rare artifacts found their way home.
However, there are still many more cultural assets being held in other countries. The method of repatriation also remains a problem. Technically the ownership of the recently returned Oegyujanggak Uigwe volumes is still retained by France. The books are only being leased to Korea on renewable 5-year terms due to a French ban on the export of cultural artifacts. It is undeniable that the handover of Oegyujanggak Uigwe collection from France is a meaningful start. France has done the right thing in returning foreign cultural assets, but future repatriations should be executed in a more efficient and permanent manner not only for Korea, but for the handful of countries seeking to get their own ancient relics back.