World Heritage Rights Versus National Cultural Property Rights: The Case of the Jikji

Human Rights Dialogue: "Cultural Rights" (Spring 2005) Online Exclusive

April 22, 2005

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reflects the important role that cultural property, or artifacts, plays in shaping and fostering the identity of individuals and their sense of belonging to a particular community. A key issue in legal and policy debates surrounding cultural property is ownership: Is cultural property the universal common heritage of mankind or do specific communities or nations have proprietary rights to their own cultural property? Even among UNESCO conventions a contradiction exits in terms of these two definitions. Whereas the agency's 1954 Hague Convention defines cultural property as the universal heritage of mankind, its 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property regards cultural property as a heritage that is particular to the cultural identity of a given nation.

This legal discrepancy complicates the resolution of conflicts over the repatriation of cultural artifacts, as illustrated by the current controversy surrounding the Jikji—the world's oldest existing book printed with movable metal type. Originally from Korea, this volume is now housed in the Bibliotéque Nationale de France. The controversy centers upon whether or not it is justified for a foreign body to own and control a cultural artifact that has significance for the national identity of another country.

The Jikji, classified in Korea as national cultural treasure no.1132, is also known in Korean as Baegun hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol, or "Identification of the Buddha’s Spirit by the Practice of Zen." Created as a guide for students in the essence of Buddhist practices, then the national religion under the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the original metal type Jikji consisted of two volumes and included 307 chapters. Today only 38 sheets of the second volume exist, although a full version printed earlier from wood type is preserved in the National Library of Korea. Printed in 1377, the metal type volume predates the Gutenberg Bible of Germany by seventy-eight years; and in 2001 it was added to the list of the World Documentary Heritage in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Since the UNESCO designation the Jikji has become the subject of contentious claims over its ownership and proper location. The most controversial issue has been the circumstances in which it was originally removed from Korea, which remain unclear. According to UNESCO records, the Jikji "had been in the collection of Collin de Plancy, a chargé d’affaires with the French Embassy in Seoul in 1887 during the reign of King Gojong. The book then went into the hands of Henri Véver [in an auction at Hotel Drouot in 1911], a collector of classics, and when he died in 1950, it was donated to the Biliothèque nationale de France, where it has been ever since."

The Biliothèque nationale claims that the Jikji is part of a world heritage of the history of human invention, and not simply a national artifact of Korean culture or of any one country. Supporters of keeping it in France also argue that it has been better preserved and appreciated through its placement in a prestigious institution that enjoys the advantage of the necessary technological and scholarly assets. In contrast, Korea maintains the position that first and foremost the Jikji belongs to the people of its country of origin, where it is valued both for the cultural ingenuity of the printing and for its historical significance for Koreans.

Korean citizens, mostly based in Cheongju City in the southern part of South Korea, have formed several organizations for the purpose of promoting this national artifact. In 2001 the Cheongju Civic Association for Finding the Jikji, the Jikji Forum, the Cheongju Early Printing Museum, the Chungbuk Society for UNESCO, and the Korean National Commission for UNESCO all worked toward the registration of the Jikji as a World Heritage document. More recently, in April 2004, with the "UNESCO Jikji Memory of the World Prize," Korean civic organizations sought to commemorate the original printing of the Jikji and to fund UNESCO’s contribution to the preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage in different communities. In addition, the Cheongju Early Printing Museum has established a website that provides information on Jikji in seven languages.

Underlying Korea's cultural rights claim is the principle of "absolute inalienability"—the idea that a member of a cultural group must be able to possess and/or repossess cultural property of collective significance. A cultural rights perspective thus rejects the very idea that national heritage or property might be "legally" sold or given to foreign officials by anyone who does not legitimately represent the cultural group. The cultural rights argument is especially compelling when we consider the colonial circumstances under which the Jikji was removed from Korea. French officials obtained the artifact in 1886, when the two countries were at war amidst colonial expansion into Korea. The claim of foreign ownership is further compromised by the fact that the Bibliotéque nationale neglected the Jikji for about twenty years. Only after Dr. Byeng-Sen Park, a Korean assistant at the library, discovered the artifact and presented it to the 1972 UNESCO "Le Livre" exhibition did it begin to receive world attention.

The issue of access of the "community of origin" to experience and appreciate a cultural artifact is central to any discussion of displaced cultural property. Typically, the community of origin is within a developing country with a history that includes colonization. Dong-Ju Lee, head of the group Jikji Internationalization, has argued that the community of origin, Korea, should be responsible for preserving the Jikji. For the most part, Lee's group and his counterpart organizations do not oppose the notion of a universal heritage of humanity, but they want a greater say in deciding access to the artifact. Thus, their emphasis is on informing the world of the Jikji's cultural significance in addition to its historic value in printing history.

Precedents exist for the reconciliation of universal and national heritage claims. In 1976, for example, the Art Institute of Chicago returned to Thailand a Khmer dynasty lintel, which had been a part of its collection since 1967. The decision was in response to an appeal by the Thai Embassy arguing that the lintel was representative of the aesthetic and cultural richness of ancient Thailand and had been removed from the country illegally. Similarly, in 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became federal law in the United States, upholding the principle of active consultation with diverse parties, including Native tribes, museums, anthropologists, archaeologists, and attorneys, in order to devise and enforce a framework and timetable for the repatriation of Native American and Native Hawaiian human remains, sacred property, and objects of cultural patrimony held by agencies receiving federal funds.

Despite such precedents, the legal frameworks provided by UNESCO's 1954 and 1970 conventions remain inadequate for recommending action in particular cases of misappropriation of cultural property and for suggesting specific steps toward repatriation. Rather, the best channels for promoting practical solutions of repatriation and for undertaking the co-supervision of displaced cultural property appear to be outside the legal frameworks of governments, through informal networks of experts and institutions, including museums, anthropologists, collectors, descendent communities, and representatives of the public at large.

In 1989, French President Mitterand promised to investigate ways to return the Jikji as a condition under which French high-speed rail would be exported to Korea. This promise was broken when the staff of the French Library opposed repatriation. This experience points to the importance of strategic diplomatic collaboration for resolving such conflicts. In the case of the Jikji, such collaboration should involve discussion about long-term loans or exchanges, the promotion of a touring program, Korean access to the Library's information on the artifact via the Internet, and the sharing of more advanced preservation technology.

Given the lack of attention to such practicalities in prevailing international conventions on heritage, France and Korea need to engage in dialogue over the possibility, for example, of "co-sponsorship" of the artifact through UNESCO. French willingness to participate in the UNESCO Program as a co-party and to exhibit the artifact in Korea would establish a more cooperative framework, and would better preserve the fullest significance of the Jikji as at once an expression of Korean national and world cultural heritage.