Seoul plans pageant to mark return of historic books
South Korea will Saturday stage a city-centre ceremony rich in pageantry to welcome the return of priceless ancient royal books, 145 years after they were looted by French troops.
After years of diplomatic wrangling, France in April and May sent back 296 volumes of "Uigwe", richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies and events during the Chosun Dynasty, which ran from 1392 to 1910.
President Lee Myung-Bak and former French Culture Minister Jack Lang will be among those attending the ceremony at the restored Gyeongbok Palace, once the dynasty's largest court.
"This is not merely the return of ancient relics. It heralds the restoration of our national spirit and tradition," Sohn Jin-Chaek, who is in charge of proceedings, told AFP Friday.
Hi-tech South Korea -- the world's most wired nation -- places great store in historical tradition, even though much of its original heritage was destroyed during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation and the 1950-53 Korean War.
Some volumes of the Uigwe will be carried in a decorated wooden frame during a procession down Seoul's broad Sejong Street to the palace.
Around 520 people will take part, including a traditional band, dozens of others attired in royal court costumes, horse riders and dancers.
When the procession passes through the main palace gate known as Gwanghwamun, it will be greeted by traditional dance and singing groups from across the country.
A band will then strike up Sujecheon, solemn court music for string and wind instruments, when the frame containing the Uigwe is laid down for a rite to proclaim the books' homecoming.
"This ritual is for announcing to heaven and the earth that the Uigwe have returned to where they should be," Sohn said.
"Through this rite, we will also vow before our ancestors that we will never repeat this sad history."
French troops seized the books in 1866 when they invaded Ganghwa island west of Seoul in retaliation for the Chosun dynasty's execution of French Catholic missionaries.
Seoul began demanding their return after a South Korean historian working at the National Library of France stumbled upon them in 1975.
One volume was returned in 1993 when then-President Francois Mitterrand visited Seoul. France was pushing hard to secure a multi-billion-dollar high-speed train project at the time.
Current President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed last November to return the other volumes when he met President Lee on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.
Technically they are on lease for a five-year permanently renewable term but Seoul officials say France is unlikely to try to reclaim them.
Culture Minister Choung Byoung-Gug has described the books as "a proud part of our cultural heritage" and said their return deepens trust and friendship between the two countries.
© 2011 AFP