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Goryeo Buddha Statue In Danger of Being Lost To Japan
  • By Kim Na-young, cub-reporter
  • 승인 2023.02.23 01:44
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▲ The Gilt-bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture (Source: YNA)

The Gilt- bronze Avalokitesvara a looted cultural property of Korea, is a Buddha statue made at Buseoksa Temple in Seosan in the 1330s, on the day of the accession of King Chungseon of Goryeo. It is estimated that the Gilt- bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture was plundered by Japanese pirates in the 1370s and smuggled to Tsushima, Japan. In 2012, a group of thieves in Korea stole it and brought it into Korea, but the ownership was unclear because of the re- stealing of looted relics. Due to this, as a result of a dispute with Japan for several years over ownership, Japan won on February 1st.

In 2012, nine Korean thieves, who stole a Buddha statue from Gwaneumsa, were caught by the police while attempting to dispose of it for 2.2 billion won. Afterwards, the Gilt- bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture was stored at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in Daejeon, and at that time, Buseoksa filed a lawsuit against the Korean government for the return of ownership, claiming that the looted seated Gilt- bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture should be returned to Buseoksa, the original owner.

In the first trial of the legal battle that started in 2016, Buseoksa Temple argued that the Gilt- bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture belonged to Buseoksa Temple because the inscription found inside the statue said, "This statue was made to be enshrined in Buseoksa Temple in Seoju (the name of Seosan in Goryeo) around 1330." In addition, the court ruled that Buseoksa was a victory, by referring to the opinions of experts that, “when transferring a Buddha statue through normal exchanges, the party giving the Buddha statue removes the object put in the statue's chest and instead leaves a record that it was made in one temple and moved to another temple.”

However, the prosecution appealed, citing the possibility of forgery of the Buddha statue and the inscription, and that it could not be recognized whether the Buseoksa Temple in Seosan was Buseoksa Temple in Seoju during the Goryeo Dynasty. At the request of the prosecution, the Cultural Heritage Administration conducted carbon dating, and as a result, the Buddha statue and the inscription were found to be authentic. At this time, the Japanese Gwaneumsa claimed ownership and participated in the trial as an auxiliary participant. Japanese scholar, Junichi Kikutake, wrote in, ‘The Art of Tsushima,’ “Kono, a group of Japanese raiders, returned after committing all kinds of atrocities in Joseon and founded Gwaneumsa. It is presumed that the Goryeo Buddha came as a result of Gono’s unilateral plunder,” he said. For this reason, the court recognized the Buddha statue as plunder in both the first and second trials. However, the court referred to the fact that the name of the Buseoksa Temple in Seosan was not found in, ‘Sillok of Taejong,’ a record of the early Joseon Dynasty, and that the Buseoksa Temple in Seosan was not listed in the list of 36 temples in, ‘Sillok of Sejong.’ Besides, the court said, “Kwaneumsa became a corporation in 1953 and owned the Buddha statue for over 20 years without knowing about Kono's malicious possession, and in the meantime, it was able to acquire ownership under Japanese civil law because nobody raised any questions.” Due to this, the judgment of the first trial was overturned and Japan prevailed.

There are 230,000 Korean cultural assets spread throughout 27 countries. In particular, Japan owns 100,000 pieces, or 40% of them. For this reason, the Gilt- bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture must be owned by Korea in order for the rest of the cultural assets to be returned. It is a time when ordinary citizens and students of CWNU need to focus their attention on the return of cultural assets, and we hope that our country's cultural assets, including the seated Gilt-bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva sculpture, will be safely returned.

By Kim Na-young, cub-reporter  skdud2986@naver.com

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