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Thursday, June 16, 2011

S Korea welcomes return of priceless looted books

Back in 1866, French soldiers invaded Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, in retaliation for the execution of French Catholic missionaries, and wreaked an uusual revenge.

The Chosun dynasty's sentence of capital punishment, for simply peddling religion, was certainly an extreme provocation.  To wave a flag and fire a city (or an island) was the standard retaliation in those times, but in this case it was embellished by the looting of the "Uigwe" books.  This was a set of 296 richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies.

A major court ceremony greeted the return of the books, regained after years of intensive negotiations.  As Park Chan-Kyong reports, a procession, headed by an elaborate palanquin bearing sample volumes, borne by twelve red-robed men, was shadowed by court guards in traditional uniform of red or blue robes, sporting false beards.  As the procession passed through the Gwanghwamum palace gate, a band of wind and percussion instruments played court music.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak  and former French Culture Minister Jack Lang were among those waiting at the palace to greet the books.  They must have felt a sense of satisfaction.  The negotiations for their return have been going on for years, accompanied by hard commercial bargaining.

High-tech South Korea places great store on its ancient past, perhaps because so much was lost during 35 years of Japanese occupation (beginning 1910) and the 1950-53 Korean War.  It is a sure bet that French firms have gained valuable contracts from the return of the books.

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