Returning the looted Korean Cultural Properties

Wegyujanggak Uigwes,

The Plundered Korean Cultural Properties by France in 1866




Legal Clusters
Geographic Clusters
Trade Clusters
Environment Clusters
Other Factors

I. Identification

1. Issue

During ancient times looting other countries' cultural properties was not illegal. Even looting was a symbol for a successful victory and superior power over other countries. How about now? Has the ownership of the looted cultural properties been transferred from original states to the plundering states legally because looting was not illegal when looting happened? Should looted cultural properties be returned to original states under moral responsibility, even though looting had happened under no international regulations?

Since international agreements on plundered cultural properties during wartime were established after the wake of the Second World War and the agreements have no retroactive forces, there have been entangled disputes regarding returning cultural properties which were plundered before the force of international agreements.

Recently, in Korea "returning Wegyujanggak Uigwes" (Chosun Dynasty's royal documents), which were plundered during a Colonial war, from France became an issue. Especially, due to the reluctant attitude of France, this issue has been delayed even though both the Korean and French Presidents agreed to return them several times during summit meetings since 1993. Since plundering Uigwes happened before international regulations were established, and there are complicated political,economic and historical implications, the issue of returning Uigwes needs to be scrutinized within moral responsibility and international precedents.

2. Description

Wegyujanggak and Uigwe

Wegyujanggak was an annex of Gyujanggak (The Royal Library) of Chosun Dynasty (the last dynasty of Korea, 1392-1910) at Ganghwa island, Korea. Built in 1871, Wegyujanggak was used to archive the Uigwes (Royal Official Documents) which describes the processes of important national and royal ceremonies such as royal marriages, funerals and inaugurations etc. Uigwe is a compound word from Chinese letter. "Ui" means a ceremony and "Gwe" means a rule or principle which needs to be conformed to descendants. Thus, together "Uigwe" is a documented royal principle which provides information for future royal ceremonies. The Uigwes are composed of writing as well as drawings to depict specific and exact forms, orders, and processes of royal and national ceremonies. The Uigwes contain not only the process of the ceremonies but also the Chosun Dynasty's administration systems, social, economic and cultural information such as trends, population, and national products. Moreover, since they were written through out the dynasty (around for 500 years), they also provide the changes of Korean letters which is significant to study the transition of Korean written languages from using Chinese letter to creation of " Hangul", Korean written language which was made in 1910. The oldest Uigwe which exists in Korea is written in 1600 (SeonJo 33 year).

Especially, because the Uigwes, archived in Wegyujanggak, were written for reading only by kings, they are considered as originals even though some of them have several duplicates which were written for different purposes and archived in other archives. The Wegyujanggak Uigwes, since written for kings, were made with very precious papers, covered by silk and each page was painted by royal artists. Especially, the Uigwes which is the issue between Korea and France are 297 volumes, and 63 of them are only documents whose duplicates do not exist in Korea since most of the Uigwes were burned or lost during the Colonial period and war time . Therefore, Wegyujanggak Uigwes which are in the French National Library are indispensable national treasures for studying the tradition and culture of the Chosun Dynasty.

ByeongInn-BakHae and ByeongInn-YangYo

During the Colonial period the Chosun Dynasty tried to keep the door closed from the Western countries. However, Western countries kept sending missionaries, medical professionals, and scholars etc., hiding their covert colonialist intention behind them. France was one of the Western countries.

Since Chosun did not have diplomatic relationship with any Western countries due to the conservative foreign policy, for the eyes of the Chosun dynasty, Western religions and medical techniques were evil and foreboded the destruction of Chosun's tradition and culture. Threatened by the emerging influence of the Western colonialism, HeungSeon-Daewongun, Kojong King's father who was a political mogul at that time, decided to suppress the infiltration of the Western influence into the Chosen dynasty. Especially, since the spread of Catholicism was sweeping and became out of the government's control, he proclaimed the Treaty of Banning Catholicism. According to the treaty, to believe Western religions was considered serious betrayal to the Chosun government. So called, ByeongInn-BakHae (1866) is the massacre of Korean Catholics and 9 French priests by the order of HeungSeon-Daewongun.

Priest Redel, who was almost dead during ByeongInn-BakHae, managed to save his life and escaped to China. Informed by Redel, H.D. Bellonett, a French diplomat in China, proclaimed a war against Chosun, and ordered P.G. Roze, the French general of Naval Affairs in China, to attack Chosun with 1, 000 French soldiers. Roze declared "because Chosun killed 9 French priests, we will kill 9,000 Chosun people as revenge" (Ganghwa. net). During the armed conflict event, the French military camped at Ganghwa island where Wegyujanggak was. However, a general of the Chosun Dynasty, Heonsu Yang, took over Ganghwa island after the victory at the JeongJok castle over the French military. This armed conflict, caused by ByeongInn-BakHae is called ByeongInn-YangYo(chaos occurred by a foreign country in the ByeongInn year).

When the French military retreated from Ganghwa island, they plundered 345 Uigwes (royal documents) and 19 boxes of silver (cost 200,000 franc) from Wegyujanggak. Furthermore the French military burned Wegyujanggak which archived national cultural properties even though they were aware the cultural properties were very precious and worthy national treasures. As a result of the brutal fire, 78 precious national artifacts, and 4,730 national documents became ashes at that time.

The Controversy

The Process to Settle the "Wegyujanggak" Issue

Until Byeongseon Park, who was working at the French National Library, found the Uigwes at a garage of the French National Library on October 14, 1978, the existence of them was a mystery. However, when she started to prove officially that the old Asian books in the garage were Uiqwes of the Chosun Dynasty, plundered by the French military during the ByeongInn-YangYo (1866), the people in the French National Library showed a callous attitude and prohibited her even to approach the books. She resigned her job as a bibliographer there to prove it without the intervention from the French National Library. After 12 years of research, she achieved it and the issue of returning the Wegyujanggak's Uigwes emerged from the long lasting silence between France and Korea.

For the first time, after the official request from the Gyujanggak, which is still the Korean National Library since Chosun Dynasty, in Seoul National University, the issue was mentioned in a government level between the former French President, Mitterand and the former Korean President, YoungSam Kim during the Korea-France Summit Meeting in September, 1993, held in Seoul, Korea. Bringing back two of the Uigwes, however returning only one of two,called Hwegyeongwonwonsodogan-Uigwe,(picture above), the President Mitterand promised to return all Uigwes to Korea. However, especially, when President Mitterand visited to Korea, France tried to export TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse, French highspeed train) to Korea because Korea was planing to import high speed trains for the Express Railway Project. France was one of the countries to compete to export TGV to Korea. Since France had been apathetic about returning Uigwes despite consistent requests from Korea before the TGV export issue, the sudden change of the French government's attitude regarding the issue of returning Uigwes has been considered as a diplomatic gesture to insinuate that returning Uigwes to Korea could happen if Korea imported TGV from France. However, after exporting TGV to Korea, France had delayed to keep the promise, being reluctant to return 63 Uigwes ,which do not have duplicates, of 297 plundered Uigwes. Thus, because of the disagreement, the process of returning Uigwes from France to Korea had not make a progress until 1998.

However, during the London ASEM Conference in April, 1998, the President of Korea, Kim Daejung and the President of France, Jaques Chirac, agreed to settle the issue, appointing each country's specialists in culture and history to settle this issue. Moreover, during the settlement process conducted by each country's specialists--Jacques Sallois from France and SangJin Han (President of the Academy of Korean Studies) from Korea--, France changed its attitude that the 63 Uigwes, which have been controversial issue, could be also included for the settlement. In the end the Presidents of the two countries reported the agreement to finish the settlement by 2001 during the Seoul ASEM Conference on October 20, 2000.

Implications and Conflicts

However, there are still complicated issues. Instead of returning the Uigwes, the French government suggested to exchange them with other Uigwes. For example, since some of the plundered Uigwes were written for kings' reading and some of them are only documents without duplicates, instead of returning them the French government requires other Uiqwes which have duplicates or are not for kings as a condition of returning plundered Uigwes.

For the Korean government, to accept this condition means that to get back plundered cultural heritage during a Colonial war, it should give other precious cultural heritage. According to the consensus of Koreans, plundered Uiqwes are not commodities, that can be traded because they are priceless treasures through which Koreans connect themselves to their ancestors and realize their cultural and national identity. However, taking into account the political and economic implications with France, the Korean government is trying to avoid any conflict rather than having an adamant standpoint against the French government.

Settling this issue with Korea, the French government also takes into account that if France returns those Uigwes to Korea without conditions, it could be a precedent to other countries. France does not want to return the Uigwes to Korea without any conditions since it could result in more disputes with other countries and even emptiness of its museums which are filled with looted cultural properties from other countries.

The official reasons the French government is reluctant to return the plundered Wegyujanggak Uigwes could be summarized as follows:

  • Looting cultural properties was not illegal at that time due to the nonexistence of international legal instruments.
  • Since the looted Wegyujanggak Uigwes have been in France for a long time, they became part of its culture.
  • Cultural properties should be preserved in the states which have the ability to preserve them in a proper condition because cultural properties are not owned by one state but by the world.
On the contrary, Koreans explain their arguments as follows:
  • Even though looting was not illegal during the armed conflict event, so called ByeongInn-YangYo, and there are no retroactive legal instruments reaching to that time, this issue can be discussed with the recent international tendency and agreements which acknowledge the obligation to return looted cultural properties to the original states.
  • Because the ownership of Uigwes is in the Chosun Dynasty, not in an individual or groups, it is impossible to replace the ownership to anywhere in any circumstance. Thus, mentioning the ownership by others itself is unthinkable and irrational.
  • Koreans cast a suspicion on the insistence that France has a better ability to preserve the Uiqwes after a Korean researcher found out that most of the Uiqwes are damaged and improperly divided or fixed. Even when the Uigwes were preserved at the garage of the French National Library, they were classified as Chinese cultural properties. Moreover, one of the Uigwes was illegally exported to England under the France government's preservation. According to the bill of the British Museum, the library bought one of Uigwes from a French cheese store on October 24, 1894 at a cost of 10 pounds.
International Regulations and the Current Tendency

Koreans also appeal to international regulations and the recent tendency, returning looted cultural properties to the original owned states. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) are working together regarding the returning stolen cultural properties and preventing the illegal traffic of stolen cultural properties. After The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (Hague, May 14, 1954) , the first international legal instrument focusing on the plundered cultural properties during war time, member states agreed to the basic concept that กฐreplacing the cultural objects from the original states without legal permissions of the states is considered a legal offense(see more international regulations) However, the controversial aspect of the international regulations is that none of them have retroactive force.

Despite the non-retroactive principle, in these days the international community seems to have consensus that the international community should impose a commitment to returning Nazi-looted cultural properties to original owners or countries. With the international trend, recently the United States proclaimed to return the looted Jewish cultural properties to original owners and states unconditionally.

However, unlike the case of Nazi-looted art, the Wegyujanggak case cannot find any supports not only from international regulations but also from the international consensus because it is a local case compared to the broad-reaching Nazi case. The issue of returning Wegyujanggak Uigwes could be a long lasting disputes between France and Korea similar to the famous Elgin Marbles case, (for more information go to TED monument case study), which were removed by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens to England with the agreement of the local authorities in the early 19th century and is still a controversial issue between Britain and Greece.

In spite of the various different situations, times, and extent regarding looted cultural properties, there is an international tendency to request moral responsibility dealing with the looted cultural properties. This tendency could provide the precedent to settle the "Wegyujanggak" dispute between Korea and France. There are several cases which could show the way how the Wegyujanggak Uigwes case should be dealt with.

  • England returned emperor's crown and royal documents, which were looted during 1867-68, to Ethiopia. Especially, when an Ethiopian emperor visited England in 1924 and when Elisabeth 2 visited Ethiopia in 1965, England returned the looted cultural properties as gifts, not for a condition for requesting anything else.
  • France and Germany returned looted a Chinese meteorological and astronomical observation instrument, which was looted in 1900, to China in 1902 and 1921 due to the harsh criticism from the international community.
  • France made an agreement with Laos in 1950, with Algeria in 1968, and with Iraq in 1980 to return their looted cultural properties during the Colonial period.
  • Denmark returned Middle age books to Iceland, which were plundered 250 years ago, in 1971.
  • The Brooklyn Museum returned stone columns to Guatemala in 1973.
  • The Newark Museum returned old artifacts, which were created in the 5th century, to Syria in 1974.

Summary and Future

The issue of returning the plundered Korean cultural properties from France seems to have a relation with the international protocols and agreements except the time implication. Considering that most of looting happened before the legal instruments had been made, these legal instruments have limitations from their birth. However, even though some of looting ,including Nazi-looting, happened before the legal protections, considerable amount of cultural properties were returned to the original states and owners. Thus, the issue of returning the Wegyujanggak Uigwes needs to be discussed within the current international tendency rather than international regulations.

The issue of returning Wegyujanggak Uigwes is in the middle of the dispute because the French government insists so called the exchange principle rather than unconditional returning even though France has got back considerable cultural properties from other countries without conditions.

Moreover, suggesting the non-governmental representatives to deal with the issue rather than governmental representatives, French government also has tried to trivialize the issue from a governmental level to a non-governmental level. On the contrary, France has dealt with cultural disputes in a governmental level when they tried to get back its cultural properties from other countries.

Recently a group of Korean congressmen in the Committees of Culture and in Tourism and Foreign Affairs and Trade suggested a resolution which requires the active and official involvement of the Korean government and requests to publicize overtly the process of dealing with the issue to citizens as well as cultural specialists of each countries. Koreans also consider that the solution is not within the political and economic relationship between the two countries but within cultural and moral consideration.

3. Related Cases

4. Author and Date :Juwon Moon, May, 2001

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: Disagree and in progress

6. Forum and Scope: France and Bilateral

7. Decision Breadth: 2

8. Legal Standing:Treaty

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) has been dealing with the issue in the international level. There are some international efforts to show the concern and the need for protection of cultural heritage, especially, during wartime.

1. The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (Hague, May 14, 1954) is the first agreement focusing exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage during wartime. The convention was adopted with the protocol which prohibits the export of cultural property from occupied territory and requires the return of such property.

2. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Hague, May 14, 1970) suggests a legal tool for the issue of returning plundered cultural properties. It suggested that at the request of the states of origin stolen and illegally imported cultural properties should be returned and recovered.

3. In furtherance of the aim of the Convention, UNESCO asked the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) to draw up a new treaty to complement the 1970 UNESCO Convention by providing minimal rules of uniform law.

4. Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (Hague, 26 March, 1999) adopted protocol to improve the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict and to establish an enhanced system of protection for specifically designated cultural property.

5. The UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects(Rome, June 29, 1995) also shows that stolen or removed cultural property from the originally owned states should be returned.

However, these legal instruments are not retroactive.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Europe

b. Geographic Site: East Asia

c. Geographic Impact:Korea

10. Sub-National Factors: No

11. Type of Habitat: Temperate

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: intellectual rights

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Indirect

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact: No

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes, Entertainment

b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

c. Not Related to Product: Yes

d. Related to Process: Yes, Culture

15. Trade Product Identification: Cultural Artifacts

16. Economic Data: NA

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: High

18. Industry Sector: Entertainment

19. Exporters and Importers:

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: Culture

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species: NA

22. Resource Impact and Effect: NA

23. Urgency and Lifetime: Low and 135s of Year

24. Substitutes: No. Since Wegyujanggak Uigwes are priceless national treasures for Koreans, they can not be substituted by anything else.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:Yes

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No

27. Rights: Yes

28. Relevant Literature