Catch That (French) Thief!
By Oh Young-jin
Assistant Managing Editor
It is high time that Korean diplomats set down their glasses of French wine and show France they have a backbone.
For nearly 20 years, elitist bureaucrats have done virtually nothing about an issue related to national pride.
Their inaction has led Korea to suffer further humiliation on the international stage. A French court swiftly dismissed a request by a Korean civic group that France return what they stole 150 years ago from Gangwha Island, Korea's fifth-largest island in the West Sea.
Of course, the root of the problem is completely of French making but it is Korea's responsibility to find a solution to it.
During a French expedition in 1866 to Gangwha, then an island fortification defending the route leading to the capital, Admiral Roze's marines and naval forces burnt down the Joseon Kingdom's royal shelter, killed Koreans and plundered its annex library, called Oegyujanggak.
When they were confronted by Joseon reinforcements, they fled with their spoils, which included hundreds of volumes of books and documents.
In 1975, a Korean scholar found those documents in the basement of the French National Library. It was not until 1993 that Korea had a chance to reclaim these stolen cultural properties.
France was doing anything it could in its efforts to get Seoul to pick its high-speed rail service, TGV, for Korea's multibillion-dollar bullet train project.
Leading a large sales delegation, the late French President Francois Mitterand came to Seoul to support its conglomerate Alstom's bid for the project. Mitterand handed a couple documents from Oegyujanggak over to President Kim Young-sam, promising to return the rest of their stolen books on a "loan-and-keep" basis. The two presidents even took a picture together in commemoration of the handover.
Alstom eventually won the deal but no more books have been returned. Diplomats of the two countries have held token negotiations but failed to make progress.
The issue has been put on the backburner, leaving it to the discretion of a few determined civic leaders. One of those civic groups, Cultural Coalition, recently lodged a lawsuit to seek the repatriation of the stolen books but received a swift and decisive dismissal from the French court.
The court ruled that the documents belong to the French national archives, thus making them the property of France, citing a U.N. convention that, on a selective basis, allows for claims by plundered nations for items "stolen" after 1970.
The ruling runs against common sense. If someone steals, we call them a thief. The thief, whether a person or nation, should be punished, and the stolen items should be returned to their rightful owners.
With the ruling, France denies this basic rule of law. By insisting that the documents are theirs, it is running the risk of being branded as an international thief of cultural artifacts.
France's reservations on the issue are understandable in that if it started returning objects of historic value to their rightful owners, the Louvre would be stripped bare of all those splendid relics ― the Mona Lisa included ― and be left only with a glass pyramid dome. We all know France relies heavily on tourism, and fully-furnished museums are key to drawing millions of people from around the world to Paris every year.
Still, that shouldn't stop France from fulfilling its obligations as a global citizen, because its credibility as a nation is at stake.
For Korean diplomats, it is important to keep President Lee Myung-bak well advised on the issue.
As suggested by some scholars, it is possible that the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy may suggest that some of the books be returned to Korea as a symbolic gesture of friendship during his visit to Seoul for the G20 summit meeting in November.
The job of Korean diplomats is to closely examine whatever proposition Sarkozy may make before advising Lee to commit himself. Simply put, don't make a fool out of the boss twice.
Lee may not need their advice as he may already know from personal experience about the craftiness of Sarkozy, remembering how the French President behaved during last year's process of determining whether Korea should be included as a member of the G20.
If November's G20 meeting sees no French concession on the documents, the Korean diplomats can redeem themselves in the international diplomatic circuit by organizing an effort to have former imperialist nations return their colonial-era spoils to their countries of origin.
That international effort should be strong enough to put France on the defensive, providing a formula of reconciliation that satisfies both the plunderers and the plundered.
One strategy would be to have France and other colonial powers first send the stolen artifacts back to their countries of origin on an extended loan-and-display basis. This would spare France and the like from international criticism, while helping Korea and other colonial victims restore their national pride.
France may worry that those artifacts will never be returned. But, it still can emerge as a winner in this deal, considering that most relics they have in their museums and libraries did not belong to them in the first place.