France loans back antique manuscripts to S.Korea

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France agreed to loan back to South Korea a collection of antique manuscripts stolen in the 19th century, in a deal struck by their presidents at the G20 summit in Seoul, officials said Friday.

The royal archives of the Joseon dynasty, covering a period from the 15th to the 19th centuries, were seized in 1866 by a French admiral in retaliation for the Korean court's alleged persecution of Catholics.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-Bak agreed France would return them to South Korea on a renewable five-year loan, according to the text of their declaration seen by AFP.

In 1993 France's then-president Francois Mitterrand handed back one set of manuscripts to South Korea on a long-term loan and Seoul has since demanded the return of the remainder.

Mitterrand's former culture minister Jack Lang said that the move represented "a great day for France, South Korea and culture".

The archives "belong to Korean memory" and "embody the Korean soul," Lang said in a statement, hailing Sarkozy's "political courage and intelligence".

Lang said he had been personally fighting for the documents' return for 15 years and Mitterrand had announced the return of all the manuscripts in 1993 but "this decision was unfortunately not respected by later governments."

Sarkozy and Lee signed the deal on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit at which France took over the presidency of the grouping from South Korea.

They agreed the move "is a unique operation, not likely to be repeated in any other circumstances and in no way creates a precedent", the text of the declaration said.

© 2010 AFP

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