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Final batch of Korean royal books to return from France

May 26, 2011 - 18:45 By 김윤미
The fourth and the final lot of Korea’s ancient royal books, looted by the French army in the late 19th century and kept in France, will arrive in Seoul on Friday but whether the government will register them as a national treasure remains unclear.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said the final 73 volumes of “Uigwe,” or manuscripts for royal protocols created during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), will arrive at Incheon International Airport at 8:30 a.m. and be delivered to the National Museum of Korea by 10:30 a.m.

A total of 273 royal books have been delivered in four separate flights from the National Library of France in Paris since April 14.

Under the agreement between Korea and France signed last year, France is giving the 297 books to Korea on loan, which will be automatically renewed every five years.

Because ownership is still in the hands of France, concerns were raised that Korea may not be able to designate the returned Uigwe as a national treasure.

However, Culture Ministry officials said they have not yet decided on the issue.

“The designation of a national treasure can be decided by the value of the cultural asset, not the ownership. If we talk about such a thing as soon as the royal books are returned, there could be unnecessary issues,” said Bang Sun-gyu, director cultural policy general of the Culture Ministry, at a press briefing.

“We will consider various situations and come to a conclusion later,” he said.

The agreement between Korea and France also stipulates that some Uigwe can be taken to France in 2015 and 2016 for an exhibition in France as a cultural exchange program between the two countries.

Some civic group activists raised concerns that Korea might not be able to get the Uigwe back again if France does not agree to extend the loan after the first five-year term expires in 2015.

Vice Culture Minister Mo Chul-min said the two countries will set up a committee for the cultural exchange with France and to prepare events.

“In the process of preparing events for bilateral cultural exchange, some of the Uigwe can be exhibited (in France),” Mo said.

He also said that a welcoming committee, consisting of chairman Kim Ui-jung, who is head of the Joseon Dynasty Uigwe Recovery Committee, Park Byeng-sen, a Korean librarian who first discovered the royal books at the French library, and Park Sang-kuk, director of the Korean Cultural Heritage Institute, will hold a rite in Gwanghwa Island on June 11 to announce the official return of the royal books to their home. Later on in the day, they will move to Gyeongbok Palace near Cheong Wa Dae to hold ceremonies and performances.

The National Museum of Korea plans to hold a special exhibition from July 19 to Sept. 18 showcasing some of the returned royal books to the public.

By Kim Yoon-mi (