Book return reads well in South Korea

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Can a few books ease tensions between two of the world’s most wired nations?

Japan and South Korea, where almost everyone has broadband, share long cultural and historical ties. But the two nations often resemble Asia’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys, famous feuding clans of Appalachia.

Koreans remain angry about Japan’s perceived lack of remorse over its occupation of Korea in the first half of the last century. The Japanese, meanwhile, fear South Korea’s ascendance as an industrial power. Korea’s Samsung is now the world’s largest consumer electronics maker, and its automakers are among the world’s fastest growing.

Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has enraged Koreans through saying things like Japan’s war criminals were wrongly convicted. It was his behavior that led the Korea Times, the country’s oldest English-language daily, to say Korea has an “emotional deficit” with Japan.

But now Noda has brought a peace offering, five important books looted from Korea. The books, called “Uigwe,” or royal protocols and often written by Korean emperors themselves, chronicle life in the final Korean dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea for more than 500 years and ceded control of the peninsula to Japan in 1910. A Korean cultural administrator told the these books are “precious relics,” and noted that they are part of Japan’s largest return of artifacts since 1965, when the two nations normalized relations.

Returning looted artifacts is a growing phenomenon as the countries they were looted from become more assertive. Just this September, the Turkish Prime Minister flew home from an official trip to the U.S. with the top half of a statute of Hercules in his luggage. It took 20 years of negotiation with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to close the deal.

Other American museums, too, like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have been pressured to return a number of prominent pieces in the last decade.

And just this week an auction in Germany was halted because the painting being sold was stolen from Poland by the Nazis during World War II.

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