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Feud over ancient statue highlights historical divide between Japan and South Korea


Neighboring countries often share cultural and historical roots. Take, for example, the case of an ancient statue both Japan and South Korea claim is theirs. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the case and what it says about the feuds that divide and the ties that bind the two neighbors.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Last week, a South Korean court ruled that the nearly 700-year-old statue belongs to the Japanese temple from which it was stolen in 2012. It overturned an earlier verdict saying the statue belonged to a South Korean temple. Korean Buddhist monk Wonwoo - that's his Buddhist name - spoke after the verdict.

WONWOO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "We're quite disappointed," he said. "We wish there was a braver judge in the Republic of Korea."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Korean).

KUHN: Monks chant sutras at Wonwoo's temple. The gilt bronze statue at the heart of the case shows a Buddhist deity sitting cross-legged, eyes likely shut in meditation. While the court recognized that the statue was stolen from Japan, it also says it's highly likely that the statue was previously stolen from Korea by 14th century Japanese pirates. University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden says that the best-known historical disputes between the two countries stemmed from Japan's colonial rule of South Korea from 1910 to 1945.

ALEXIS DUDDEN: The sex slaves of the former Japanese empire, forced labor - these are the main topics. But artifacts, cultural treasures, were certainly spirited away during this half century of rule.

KUHN: Monk Wonwoo adds that a document was found inside the statue. Like most Korean documents at the time, it was written in Chinese. It explains that the statue was made in Korea to bring blessings to future generations.

WONWOO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "It's clear who owns it, why it was made and what was intended for the statue," he says. "So when it's found in an unintended location, the key question is, who should prove how it got there?" Kim Kyung-im is a former South Korean diplomat. She argues that beginning in the 19th century, Japan's rulers began to see cultural artifacts like the statue as a way to justify their colonization of neighboring countries.

KIM KYUNG-IM: (Through interpreter) They wanted to find proof of their ancient history - most importantly, the origin of the Japanese state and Japan's rule over the Korean Peninsula.

KUHN: For centuries, culture and technology flowed from China through the Korean Peninsula to Japan. Some Japanese scholars have tried to show that, in fact, the flow mainly went the other way. Yuko Nagasawa is a political scientist at Tokyo University. She says the statue's significance has nothing to do with cultural dominance.

YUKO NAGASAWA: (Through interpreter) The document indicates that the statue is not rooted in just one nation or culture. It shows how the Korean Peninsula at that time was a bridge between the cultures of China and Japan.

KUHN: Nagasawa points out that the U.S. played a key role in the 1965 establishment of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea. Then, as now, Washington wanted its Asian allies to shelve their historical disputes and focus on national security threats.

NAGASAWA: (Through interpreter) In my opinion, the two countries have yet to truly face and talk with each other. Therefore, I think the presence of the U.S. will continue to be very significant.

KUHN: For now, the statue remains in South Korea. The government has not yet said what it plans to do with it. The South Korean temple that claims the statue, meanwhile, says it plans to appeal the court ruling.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Daejeon, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.