A letter from Dr. Byengsen Park, the mother of Jikji
I encountered our national heritage in a foreign country.
In 1955, after the Korean War, Korea was devastated and became one of the poorest countries in the world. There were many kids begging on the street.
After graduating in History from Seoul National University, I flew to France.
I felt a great responsibility as the first Korean woman to study in France.
I had a dream of finding and returning the Oegyujanggak Uigwe to my country. The French army took the Uigwe during the French campaign against Korea (Byeongin Yangyo in Korean).
In 1967 while I was studying history and religion for a doctoral degree in Belgium and at the University of Paris Diderot in France, I got a job offer from the National Library of France.
Finally, I got a chance to search for the Oegyujanggak books. It had been my dream since I left Korea.
While working in the library, I tenaciously searched through old books
Without a break, I looked through all the books in the Division of Oriental Manuscripts at the library.
One book suddenly caught my eye. It was an old book that was categorized as Chinese literature and mixed with unsorted documents.
The book was printed in 1377 during the reign of King Gongmin of Goryeo and sold cheaply to France during the late Korean Empire.
It was Jikji. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The first volume was missing and the first page of the second volume was gone.
The world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type had been totally neglected in this foreign country and mixed with unsorted Chinese documents.
At the time, France had no idea about its value.
My research proved that Jikji is the oldest book printed with metal type.
Suddenly, after the long period of neglect, France categorized Jikji as a valuable record and started protecting it as if Jikji was its own heritage.
My hands started shaking and my eyes started tearing up in sorrow. However, I didn’t have time to dwell on the emotion.
I had to find more documentary heritage that might be neglected somewhere else. I began searching for the Oegyujanggak Uigwe that was taken by France in the 19th century.
In 1975, I finally discovered 297 volumes of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe.
I ran to the Korean embassy in France to inform them of my discovery. There is an enormous amount of documentary heritage from the Joseon dynasty at the National Library of France.
However, I faced a frustrating reality.
At the time, the Korean government had little interest in retrieving its cultural properties.
My discovery seemed to be an annoying burden for embassy employees.
My colleagues at the library also seemed to be displeased with me.
From their perspective, I abused my position as a librarian at the national library and tried to take away their property.
From that point on, I was continuously pressured to resign.
I had to give up all I had achieved. The only thing that sustained me was the pride of what I did for my country that produced such great documentary heritage.
I eventually resigned, but continued on with my research at the library, despite the fierce glares of my old colleagues. For the next ten years, as an ordinary library visitor, I reviewed the Oegyujanggak books, translated them, and organized the table of contents.
It was a lonely and difficult time. However, I reminded myself of the excitement I had in 1967 when I found and eventually proved that Jikji is the world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type.
If I had given up on the challenge, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to present my finding to international scholars that Jikji was printed in 1377, which is 78 years before the printing of Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible.
I also urged the Korean government and academia to make more of an effort to retrieve its documentary heritage.
In June of 2011, it had been 56 years since I started dreaming of finding and returning Oegyujanggak books to Korea. Finally, the Oegyujanggak Uigwe returned to Korea.
It was a homecoming 145 years after it left the country.
At age 89, I lay in a hospital bed and couldn’t even eat. I still felt like I had a lot to do for my country.
Around five months passed after the return of the Oegyujanggak books to Korea.
Now I have become a member of heaven.
Jikji still couldn’t make its return home.
However, I am ready to rest.
I believe in my country and the people. They will retrieve Jikji, which made me feel proud of my country even during its poorest days.
Eventually, Jikji will also be returned to Korea.
There are things that I couldn’t finish during my lifetime.
However, I know that future generations of my country will carry on the work.
Number of Korean cultural properties remaining outside the country: around 74,000
Considering that there are privately owned and untraceable properties, the actual number can be much higher. For the last 60 years, the Korean government has retrieved around 5,000 cultural properties that were scattered around the world.
Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK)
VANK urges young Koreans to build friendships and interact with foreign students and teachers around the world.
VANK members are persuading their foreign friends that Korean cultural properties contain our spirit and that those in foreign countries must be returned.
Korean cultural properties are our treasures that reflect our history.
We consider the retrieval of our cultural properties as our responsibility to history.
As people of a powerful country that respect culture and pursue general human values, we have the responsibility and right to retrieve our cultural properties.
Each country has the right to possess its cultural properties that were taken away illegitimately.