On Thursday/March 17/2011, Korea signed an agreement with France to transfer the Korean royal archives, Oegyujanggak, which were looted during an 1866 French incursion, from Paris to Seoul before the end of May. The books will be returned under a five-year renewable lease, and it will be the first time in 144 years that the volumes will be seen in their homeland. The National Museum of Korea will hold a ceremony and exhibition to celebrate the return of the archives.
The National Museum of Korea and the National Library of France (BNF) sign an agreement in Paris on March 16 for the transfer of the Oegyujanggak archives. (Photo: Yonhap News)
On September 18, 1866, French forces invaded Ganghwado Island, west of Seoul (then, Hanseong, the capital of the Joseon Dynasty). The invasion is known as Byeong-in yango, which means “Western disturbance during the byeong-in year.” France invaded the country to retaliate for the execution of French missionaries by the Joseon government. The encounter was the first armed conflict between Korea and a Western power. The overall result was a French retreat and a check on its influence in the region. However, historically important books and documents on political and cultural events of the period were looted during the invasion. The 5,607 books kept in the royal library, Oegyujanggak – an annex of Kyujanggak royal library in Hanseong, known as the safest library in the Joseon Dynasty – were set on fire or stolen. The books recorded and illustrated all of the rituals, formalities and daily routines of the royal court during the Joseon Dynasty.
The Oegyujanggak royal archives (Photo: Yonhap News)
The records taken by the French include 297 texts, with dates ranging from the 14th to the 19th centuries. These books would go onto become the core of the Korea collection in the National Library of France. It was not until 1975 that a Korean librarian, Park Byeong-seon, who worked at the National Library of France, discovered that the Oegyujanggak books still existed. “When the French army came to Oegyujanggak on Ganghwado Island where these palace records were kept, they burned most of the books as well as the building itself, except for the uigwe,” Shin Byung-ju, a history professor at Konkuk University, told the JoongAng Daily in 2008. Uigwe are ancient documents that dictate the protocols of royal ceremonies and events of the Joseon Dynasty. “It was because even foreigners recognized the value of these documents with their silk covers, elegant binding, quality paper and sumptuous illustrations.”
Uigwe have important historical value because they describe how official government and royal events were held during the Joseon era. Uigwe were
developed as a reference for government and court officials planning these events, and include details such as the proper procedure and cost of various ceremonies. The records cover everything from coronation and royal marriage ceremonies to state funerals. There were two types of uigwe, one for the king and royal family and another for general purposes. The uigwe covering royal ceremonies were made with high-quality silk covers and are valued for their artistic and documentary value. The records were stored in Oegyujanggak on Ganghwado Island, since that library was considered safer than the those in the capital. When the French looted the island, they stole many of the royal uigwe, denying Koreans a precious historical asset. Korean historians who have examined the uigwe at the National Library of France found that 30 of the 297 records are the only existing copies in the world. This uniqueness has excited historians, who hope the uigwe will give them greater insight into important events that occurred in the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty. For a long time, it looked as if researchers in Korea would be unable to see the uigwe stolen by the French firsthand. The Korean government argued that the books should belong to Korea since they were looted during the war. It took ten years of meetings before the French government agreed to send the books back to Korea.
The Oegyujanggak royal archives (Courtesy the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea)
The battle to retrieve the ancient books
Korea was met with fierce opposition from France when it began lobbying for the uigwe to be returned in 1991. It wasn’t for two years that the country saw any progress on the matter. In September 1993, French President Francois Mitterand gave Korean President Kim Young-sam one of the 297 books and promised to return the complete collection in coming years at the Korea-France summit in Seoul. Mitterand used the book as leverage in his bid to export technology for France’s high-speed train TGV to Korea.
While France won the bid, the president reneged on his promise to return the uigwe records to Korea. France suggested that instead of returning the books, they could permanently “loan” the uigwe to Korea in exchange for other ancient Korean documents. Koreans rejected this proposal, saying that it amounted to sacrificing more cultural properties in order to have what was stolen from them. Koreans were becoming more aware of the importance of cultural heritage during this period and pressed the government to be firm with France on the uigwe matter.
In January 2002, a five-member Korean delegation – which included historian Kim Mun-sik, now a history professor at Dankook University – headed to France to examine the books in the National Library. Because the Korean historians were allowed to check out only one book at a time, they could examine only 100 out of the 297 books. A Seoul-based civic group filed a lawsuit against the library in France in 2008 to get the stolen books returned to Korea. But the Paris court turned down the demand in the following year, saying the Korean books were French national property. Eight years passed since the historic on-site inspection, and Korea’s royal documents remained in France. Korean historians continued their lobbying work during that time and finally saw their efforts payoff last year.
An exhibition hall for the Oegyujanggak on Ganghwado Island (Photo: Korea Magazine)
The long-running dispute reached a turning point when French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged in November last year in Seoul to return the centuries-old Oegyujanggak books during the G20 Seoul Summit meeting. His promise helped begin negotiations that would resolve the thorny diplomatic feud between the two countries. After months of discussions, the two sides reached a formal agreement in Paris. The French government will return the Korean royal books taken by France this spring. In accordance with the agreement between the two parties, all 297 volumes will be relocated to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul by May 31 on a renewable five-year lease. While the lease format is not ideal, historians are excited to finally be able to access the important records in Korea.
The uigwe deal is a hard-earned victory for Korean historians, after 20 years of lobbying. Yet, Korea still has hundreds of thousands of cultural assets that were stolen during the 1950-53 Korean War and Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula. Experts say that more than 760,000 ancient books, documents, craftworks and other forms of cultural assets are now in about 20 different countries around the world.