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Ancient Korean books in Japan may return in May: official

Large volumes of ancient Korean books stored in Japan, including key royal texts, could return to Seoul sometime next month, an official said Monday.

Lee Sang-geun, a member of a committee dedicated to retrieving ancient archives, said at a press conference that 1,205 volumes of Korean books, including royal texts known as "Uigwe," could be shipped back by late May after Seoul and Tokyo finalize some diplomatic matters.

"Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto will visit South Korea on May 15 and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will travel to Japan on May 20," said Lee, also a senior official of the Jogye Order, South Korea's largest Buddhist sect. "I think those trips will finalize diplomatic matters (surrounding the return of books). President Lee may even bring back with him some volumes of the Uigwe as a symbolic move."

Last November, Japan agreed to return a total of 1,205 volumes of archives that were seized during its 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea. The agreement represented Tokyo's first concrete step forward after Prime Minister Naoto Kan in August pledged to return books and other Korean cultural relics as part of his apology for Japan's colonial past.

Uigwe is a collection of documents from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It records and illustrates procedures and formalities conducted for weddings, funerals, banquets and receiving foreign missions as well as cultural activities of the royal family.

Japan is believed to be holding 167 Uigwe books, including 81 originals, at its Imperial Household Agency, after these books were taken away from a Buddhist temple in 1922. South Korea has 3,563 Uigwe books, 703 of them originals.

Lee said he attended a meeting last week of the Japanese House of Representatives committee on the ratification of the agreement and said there was no strong resistance from the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

"If the return of the books gets through the House committee on Wednesday, it should pass the regular session of the House on Thursday," Lee predicted.

Lee said that of the 30 lawmakers on the foreign affairs committee, 20 are representatives of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and they're in favor of the return of the books.

The House of Councilors, the upper house in Tokyo, will have its general session on May 11 to discuss the agreement. Lee said that even if the upper house votes down the deal, it shouldn't affect the return. If a deal between Japan and another country is ratified by the House of Representatives, it would go into effect automatically after 30 days regardless of the decision at the upper house, Lee explained.

Lee said his committee plans to hold a reception in Japan for some 200 Japanese officials in appreciation of their efforts to return the ancient books.

Some welcoming ceremonies across Seoul are also being planned once the books reach South Korea.

"This should give momentum to our efforts to retrieve other cultural assets stored in Japan," Lee said. (Yonhap News)

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