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South Korean court rejects temple’s claim to looted statue

SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea’s Supreme Court yesterday rejected a Buddhist temple’s claim to a 700-year-old statue purportedly looted from its premises by Japanese pirates in the 14th Century, paving the way for the artefact’s return to Japan.

The ruling effectively ends the protracted legal dispute over the roughly 50-centimetre statue of a sitting Buddhist Bodhisattva, which was stolen from a Japanese temple by South Korean thieves in 2012.

The thieves were caught trying to sell it after returning home and the statue passed into South Korean government custody, but the Buseok temple – about 100 kilometres south of Seoul – filed a lawsuit in 2016 asserting ownership and demanding it be returned.

A South Korean court initially sided with the Buseok temple, saying the piece was originally taken to Japan by “abnormal” means equivalent to “plundering”.

But an appellate court in February overturned the ruling, acknowledging that the Japanese temple – Kannon in Nagasaki prefecture – had ownership over the statue.


The Supreme Court yesterday upheld that verdict, saying the Japanese temple had the legal right to the statue, even as it acknowledged the validity of the South Korean temple’s claim that the piece was crafted and stored there originally.

“We can view that this statue was manufactured and stored at the Buseok Temple,” the court said in the verdict.

But the Kannon temple had “acquired legal rights” to the artefact in 1973, in accordance with Japanese laws.

“High probabilities that this statue was looted by the Japanese pirates during the Goryeo Dynasty do not overturn the assumption of the Japanese temple’s ownership,” the ruling said, referring to the ancient dynasty that ruled Korea from 918 to 1392.

It also noted that the Kannon temple had owned the statue from 1953 until it was removed by the South Korean thieves in 2012.

Considering these factors, the South Korean Buseok temple “loses its ownership rights even though it is acknowledged as the statue’s original creator”, the court said.

Japanese priest Setsuryo Tanaka at the Kannon temple said the ruling was rational. “My ultimate hope is that the statue will be brought back to (Nagasaki) and the sight of it will bring relief to local people,” he said.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, will “urge South Korea to ensure that the Buddha statue in question will be returned to its owner”, said deputy chief Hideki Murai.