France to return looted Korean books 'permanently'
Seoul: Ancient Korean royal books, to be welcomed back to Seoul on Saturday 145 years after they were looted by French troops, are effectively being returned permanently, a former French culture minister says.
After years of diplomatic wrangling, France in April and May sent back 296 volumes of "Uigwe", richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies and events during the Chosun Dynasty, which ran from 1392 to 1910.
Officially the books are on a five-year renewable loan and there have been concerns in South Korea that France might reclaim them in the future.
But South Korean officials had said the repatriation was in effect perpetual and Jack Lang, who spent nine years as France's culture minister, said on Saturday: "I don't believe even for an instant that the French government... cannot leave them durably here in Korea."
He was speaking to journalists ahead of a pageantry-rich ceremony in the South Korean capital to welcome the return of the priceless ancient royal books.
They were seized in 1866 when French troops invaded Ganghwa island west of Seoul in retaliation for the Chosun dynasty's execution of French Catholic missionaries.
Lang and Professor Vincent Berger of Paris Diderot University travelled to Seoul to attend the event and reportedly to receive medals from the South Korean government for their leading roles in returning the documents.
"I'd like to reassure you by saying that what is important is they are here, on Korean soil. Who owns them is not important," Berger said at the same press conference at the National Museum of Korea.
Lang said he would deliver a verbal message from President Nicolas Sarkozy to South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak that the gesture would help cement friendly ties between the two countries.
Seoul began demanding the works' return after a South Korean historian working at the National Library of France stumbled upon them in 1975.
Lang said he tried to persuade the late president Francois Mitterrand the books should be sent back when he served as his culture minister, and one volume was returned in 1993 when the head of state visited Seoul.
France was pushing hard to secure a multi-billion-dollar high-speed train project at the time.
President Sarkozy agreed last November to return the other documents when he met Lee on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.