South Korea on Friday returned one of two Korean Buddha statues back to Japan, which were stolen by a Korean theft ring three years ago from a Japanese temple, a diplomatic source said.
A group of seven South Korean thieves stole the two statues from the Kaijin shrine in Japan's Nagasaki Prefecture in October 2012. The two cultural artifacts were passed through Korean customs as they were mistakenly appraised as copied antiques.
As South Korean cultural artifacts were looted by Japan during its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul has been making efforts to reclaim them.
But South Korea's decision to return one of the statues to Japan came as Seoul's prosecutors concluded that there is no proof that the statue was illegally moved to the neighboring country and no one in South Korea has claimed ownership of it.
A diplomatic source said that the South Korean government delivered the statue to Japanese officials earlier in the day. It will be transported via airplane later Friday, according to the source.
Experts said the statue, which was crafted in the 8th century during the Unified Silla period, was presumed to have been moved to Japan through either cultural exchanges or looting during the Japanese invasion of Korea, known as the Imjin War (1592-1598).
Japan is also demanding Seoul return the other Buddhist statue, which was presumed to have been made in the 14th century during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) and was designated by Japan as an intangible cultural asset.
The decision to return it has been delayed due to the need for further investigation. The South Korean Buddhists' society has been seeking to reclaim the artifact, saying that it might have been stolen from a temple located in Seosan, some 151 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)