He reportedly said during a meeting with his Japanese counterpart last week that the South Korean government would make due efforts to ensure the statues would be sent back to Japan. Yoo was quoted by a Japanese daily as reiterating the position on the following day.
A year ago, a South Korean crime ring stole the statues from a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple on the western Japanese island of Tsushima and smuggled them to south Korea in a botched attempt to sell them to local private collectors. In June, three of the arrested thieves were sentenced to three to four years in prison.
A court earlier approved an injunction request filed by a temple in South Korea to ban the return of one of the retrieved statues, which is alleged to have been taken from it by Japanese pirates in the 14th century. The other – there has been no clue as to how it was taken to Japan – has been held by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea pending a final decision on whether to send it back.
“While I am obliged to wait for the judiciary’s decision, I believe that they should naturally be returned, if rational thought is given to the matter,” Yoo was quoted by the Asahi Shimbun as saying.
Some critics in south Korea have accused the minister of making “reckless” remarks. But our view is that he struck a proper note when asked by the Japanese official and media about the South Korean government’s stance on the issue. Giving an answer negative to returning the statues would have run against legal sense and international norms. It would also have been inappropriate and awkward for him to have avoided the question.
As we have noted, logical reasoning should prevail over emotional approaches in handling the stolen statues. It should be realised that the issue of retrieving cultural properties abroad cannot be solved by emotional methods that lack historical, moral and logical grounds.
It is right to return both of the statues to their Japanese owners who had cherished them for centuries until they were stolen. It can hardly be expected that the ongoing trial requested by the South Korean temple to claim one of them will prove that it was taken away by Japanese pirates in the 14th century. The other should have been sent back immediately on its retrieval, as there is no suspicion that it was acquired in an unjust way.
Their return would help provide a new momentum for efforts to retrieve other South Korean cultural assets plundered by Japan, especially during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.