GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA – South Korean Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong said two Buddhist statues stolen last year from Japan should be returned to their owners in Nagasaki Prefecture, according to Hakubun Shimomura, his Japanese counterpart.
Shimomura told reporters that Yoo made the remarks Friday during a bilateral meeting held ahead of a trilateral summit slated for later Saturday, and which was to also include China’s minister of culture.
Yoo is the first senior South Korean government official to call for the statues to be returned to Japan, according to Japanese diplomats.
The two statues were stolen from Kannon Temple on the island of Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, in October last year and were later taken to South Korea, authorities in Seoul said earlier.
A South Korean temple claims that one of the statues taken from Kannon Temple was originally stolen by Japanese pirates between the 13th and 16th centuries, and has filed a lawsuit to keep it in the country.
Tokyo has urged Seoul to return the statues, but a South Korean district court ruled that they should remain in the South until Japan can provide proof that they were lawfully acquired by their Japanese owners.
The statue allegedly plundered by pirates was made in 1330 at Buseoksa Temple in what is now Yeongju, North Gyeongsang province, based on an inscription. Tsushima’s board of education said it may have been sold to Kannon Temple when anti-Buddhist movements began spreading on the Korean Peninsula in the 14th century.
Last February, the Daejeon District Court ruled the statue should not be returned to Japan until it is confirmed that Kannon Temple acquired it legally.
Also on Friday, Shimomura held a separate bilateral meeting with Chinese Culture Minister Cai Wu.
It was the first official Cabinet-level meeting between Japan and China since the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assumed office last December. The bilateral relationship has been strained ever since Japan in September 2012 effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands, whose sovereignty is disputed by China, in the East China Sea.
Shimamura said he agreed with Cai that their two countries should try to improve ties through cultural exchanges.
The culture ministers of Japan, South Korea and China have held trilateral summits since 2007.