Some 170-thousand pieces of cultural relics made their way overseas through looting and theft during tumultuous periods of Korean history such as foreign invasions, the Japanese colonial era, and the Korean War.
Of this total, 66-thousand have been officially confirmed to be present in Japan. Today we recall an inter-Korean effort to return one of these cultural assets to its rightful place on the Korean peninsula.
The Bukgwan Victory Monument was taken to Japan by the military in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. In following the steps of how it was brought back to Korea after a century, we hear from Park Geun-mok, board chairman of the monument's memorial association who also served as head of a civic network dedicated to the asset's retrieval.
The Victory Monument was constructed in 1709 in the 33rd year of King Sukjong's reign in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province. It was erected to celebrate a victory against the Japanese invaders led by Jeong Mun-bu, general in the Korean army during the Japanese invasions of the Korean peninsula in the late sixteenth century. The monument is 187 centimeters high and 66 centimeters wide.
In 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, a Japanese Army major of the Second Division who was stationed in this area took the monument to Japan as a war trophy. In Japan, a large rock weighing about one ton was laid on the monument so as to suppress the spirit of Korean resistance troops, a move inspired by Japanese superstition. The monument was left neglected at the Yasukuni Shrine until October 2005 when it finally returned to Korean soil through joint government and civic efforts in South Korea and also with North Korea’s cooperation. In March the following year, the monument was restored to its original location in Kilju, North Korea, after more than a century away.
The Bukgwan Victory Monument, which marks a triumphant battle in the seven-year war against Japan in the late 16th century, was long thought lost by Korean historians and archeologists. But in 1978, the monument reemerged when Korean Japanese historian Dr. Choi Seo-myeon was able to confirm that it was kept at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. This sparked a movement to bring it back to Korea.
Japan was reluctant to return the monument, but eventually gave in when in 2004, some 40 NGO groups in South Korea and Japan launched an organization aimed at returning the monument to Korea
On March first, 2005, the president of a Korea-Japan Buddhist organization met with the top official at Yasukuni Shrine. After the discussion, the shrine announced that it will return the monument if an agreement is also reached with North Korea. Civic groups pried this commitment from Japan after 27 years of effort. The episode also facilitated another level of inter-Korean dialogue. Here is Mr. Park.
During the Asian-African Summit in Indonesia in April 2005, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan proposed talks on the issue to North Korea’s parliamentary leader Kim Yong-nam. Lee said that the civic sector has already done the majority of the work and a government agreement between the two Koreas is all that is necessary to bring back the monument. The North Korean official promised full cooperation, which led to renewed inter-Korean dialogue.
Inter-Korean relations were strained at the time due to the North’s nuclear provocation and disagreement over how to deal with the tenth anniversary of the passing of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung in 2004. However, in spring the next year the two Koreas held high-level talks for the first time in five years since a summit in 2000. The agenda was retrieving the Bukgwan Victory Monument from Japan, which the two sides agreed to. As the Koreas came together, Japan then also agreed to return the monument in October that year.
Following the signing of an official agreement, the Yasukuni Shrine finally opened its doors and released the Korean monument, and its journey home began.
The Bukgwan Victory Monument arrived at Incheon International Airport at 4:30 p.m. on October 20th 2005. Under tight security, a ceremony was held to celebrate its arrival. Civic group officials, in tears, were moved at the sight of the returned monument as they looked back on their past efforts to make it come true. Park describes the scene.
It was beyond words. I felt so rewarded and so grateful that we could bring it back from the Japanese shrine. I still tear up thinking of that day. I see myself as part of a cultural army. Blood, sweat and tears were behind that achievement. All of us who took part in the endeavor feel the same way.
After the emotional ceremony, the monument was taken to the National Museum of Korea. The two Koreas held ministerial talks in December that year and agreed to return the monument to its original site in North Korea's North Hamgyong Province.
The two sides agreed on further details of this plan during working-level talks in February 2006. During this meeting, the two Koreas also labeled the monument’s return as a cultural movement in the same spirit as the March first 1919 Independence Movement against colonial Japan. They agreed to send the monument to the North on March first in light of the day’s historical significance. Let's hear from Park about the monument crossing into the North.
On March first, a South Korean delegation of about 150 government officials and civic group members traveled to Gaeseong, North Korea carrying the monument. It was a historic event that saw something that was lost in Korean history restored through cross-border cooperation. It also made us realize the foundational framework of inter-Korean coexistence.
On March first, 2006, the monument left Seoul and crossed the border into North Korea. At 11 a.m., a ceremony was held in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong to mark the handover. In attendance were some 50 North Korean officials and some 150 officials from South Korea including Mr. Park.
The event led many people to believe there was no divided Korea when it came to retrieving cultural assets from Japan. It also left many to wonder what more can be done by the two Koreas if they work together.
Following the handover ceremony, the monument was transported to its original site in Kilju county, North Hamgyong Province. North Korea thereafter fully restored the monument and designated it as national treasure No. 193. Mr. Park has yet to see the monument standing at its original site but hopes to one day. With three summit talks held this year, the two Koreas could make concerted efforts again to bring back cultural properties that remain outside the peninsula.
I would love to visit North Korea. Politics are actively under way at the moment so us in the civic sector are just observing. All my efforts were for the sake of Korean unification. With the same determination, I have many plans in store to play a bridging role toward unification of the two Koreas.
The retrieval of the Bukgwan Victory Monument enabled through inter-Korean cooperation opened a new chapter in repatriation of Korean cultural relics from abroad. Hopefully this first incident of cross-border collaboration can lead to many more in the years to come so that more precious relics can make their way back to Korea.