By Na Jeong-ju
France has agreed to lease a volume of royal documents from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), which it looted during a 19th-century attack, to Korea on condition that the contract will be renewed every five years, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday.
Cheong Wa Dae said the agreement virtually means that France will return the stolen books to Seoul permanently.
“We have agreed to lease the documents. The lease will be rolled over every five years,” Sarkozy told reporters following his summit with President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of the G20 Seoul Summit.
“I believe the time has come to settle this. I know that for Koreans, the documents are very much a part of their national heritage.”
Lee told the French leader that it was “fortunate” for the two countries to resolve the thorny issue, saying he regards the lease of the books as a “decision to return,” according to Hong Sang-pyo, senior secretary for public relations.
The royal documents were looted by French troops in 1866 when they attacked Ganghwa Island, where a branch of the royal library was located, in retaliation against Korea’s persecution of French Catholic missionaries. The royal books are now in the National Library of France.
The books recorded and illustrated all of the rituals, formalities and daily routines of the royal court during the Joseon Kingdom.
The agreement came as Japan is planning to return “Uigwe,” or the royal protocols of the Joseon era, that it stole in the early 1900s. In August, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to return the stolen documents after he offered an apology over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea.
France had reportedly been reluctant to return the looted books out of fear that it would set a “bad” precedent in similar cases with other countries.
In 1993, then-French President Francois Mitterrand handed one of the stolen books over to Korea during his visit to Seoul.
A Seoul-based civic group filed a lawsuit in France in 2008 against the National Library of France, demanding the stolen books be returned. A Paris court rejected the demand in December last year, saying the Korean books were the national property of France.
As for the G20, Lee and Sarkozy agreed to work together to find solutions to challenging economic issues. Korea will remain a part of the G20 troika as the host of the past summit. France is the next host.