The Daejeon High Court ruled Wednesday against a Korean Buddhist temple's ownership claim to a 14th-century Bodhisattva statue that it argues was plundered by Japanese pirates in the late Goryeo-era.
The ruling accelerated Japan's request to Korea for its urgent return, although the Korean court added that issues concerning the return and protection of cultural assets should be decided in accordance with UNESCO conventions and relevant international law.
The 50.5-centimeter high gilt-bronze Bodhisattva statue which weighs 38.6 kilograms, was stolen from Japan's Kannonji Temple in October 2012 by South Korean brought them to Korea, intending to sell them. The thieves had also stolen a Silla-era standing Buddha statue from Japan's Kaijin Shrine on the same day.
The thieves were arrested and prosecuted in early 2013 after a joint investigation by the National Police Agency and the Cultural Heritage Administration.
The Korean government immediately confiscated the two statues from the thieves, promptly returning one of the statues to the Japanese shrine. The Bodhisattva statue was kept in custody at the National Institute of Cultural Heritage in Daejeon.
In the same year, Buseoksa, a Korean temple in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province, filed a temporary injunction on the transfer of the statue, aiming to prevent the government from returning it to Japan. The injunction was granted by Daejeon District Court in February.
Buseoksa officially filed a legal case against the Korean government in 2016, claiming ownership of the statue, which it said had been plundered from Buseoksa by Japanese pirates.
In 2017, the Daejeon District Court ruled in favor of Buseoksa, citing documents and evidence which prove Japan's pillage of the Buseoksa Temple. The prosecution appealed the ruling and sought an injunction to suspend its execution.
But last Wednesday, the Daejeon High Court overturned the ruling, saying that the Kannonji Temple had acquired the statue's legal ownership through continued possession. At the trial, Kannonji Temple argued that the artifact was acquired through legitimate trade in 1527.
The Daejeon High Court's decision was based on the statutory ground of Kannonji Temple's "acquisitive prescription" of the statue.
The law governing the ownership of the statue falls under Japanese civil law, which states that a person or entity may acquire ownership of property even if it did not originally belong to them, as long as they possess it "peacefully and openly" for at least 20 years. Kannonji Temple listed itself as a legal entity in 1953. This means the temple has been in possession of the statue since then.
In its ruling, the court said that it is difficult to define whether the current Buseoksa constitutes the same 14th-century Goryeo Buseoksa from which the statue was taken, citing that lack of documents to prove succession of its religious identity.
"Ignorance of the over 2,000-year history of Korean Buddhism and questioning the legitimacy of the Jogye Order resulted in the high court's frustrating decision," a former chief monk at Buseoksa, Ven. Wonwoo, told The Korea Herald.
"There is already clear evidence that the word 'Seoju' in Seoju Buseoksa which was destroyed in 1407, indicates the Seosan area. Also, the fact that Buseoksa Temple's physical form had once been destroyed does not mean Buseoksa as a whole disappeared from history,” Ven. Wonwoo said. He also resented that such cultural heritage was dealt with as a matter of "acquisitive prescription," as if it concerned an individual's possession of an object.
Meanwhile, some Korean history and arts experts said that this case will impede the safe return of other Korean cultural artifacts from Japan through the efforts of the academia and government.
"It's a penny-wise and pound-foolish case," a professor at Seoul National University's Department of Korean History specializing in Buddhist history, Nam Dong-shin, told The Korea Herald, Monday. Nam argued that the dispute has stifled academic exchanges and research opportunities between Korea and Japan for over a decade.
“What we are missing out on while fighting for ownership is how to keep the research going, which brings life to the artifact. This can only be done by the continued sharing of research materials and results between Korea and Japan," Nam said.
Buseoksa Temple said after Wednesday's ruling that it would take the case to the Supreme Court.