U.S. returns lost treasures of Korea

Priceless treasures from Korea’s Joseon Dynasty are on a journey home, after the U.S. government returned two royal seals to dignitaries from the Republic of Korea during a June 30 ceremony in Washington.

The event was part of President Moon Jae-in’s four-day visit to the U.S. that included talks at the White House with President Trump.

Press conference with speaker holding carved seal (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
South Korean Congressman Kim Kyoung-soo shows reporters the royal seal of Queen Munjeong. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

“I am convinced that the royal seal of Queen Munjeong will be a symbol of the promise of friendship between the United States and Korea, and the friendship between President Trump and President Moon,” said An Min-suk, a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.

The Joseon Dynasty, which ruled in Korea from 1392 to 1910, crafted approximately 366 seals to stamp royal approval on documents. The seals represented the king’s power and authority.

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, 47 Joseon Dynasty seals were lost. But two of them ended up in Los Angeles. One, a bronze, turtle-topped stamp covered in gold, dates back to 1547. Carvers made it to commemorate a royal ritual for the deceased Queen Munjeong.

The other, carved from jade, is known as the King’s Seal. It dates back to approximately 1651 and was made to celebrate the future king Hyeonjong becoming crown prince.

The U.S. government has been looking to return these seals to Korea for a long time. In the 1950s, a State Department cultural affairs officer recorded the request of the Korean ambassador to seek the missing seals. In 2013, U.S.-Korea cooperation bore fruit when the Queen’s Seal was discovered at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And after the Korean Broadcasting Service discovered the collector who had sold the Queen’s Seal to the museum, it also found the King’s Seal at his house.

Since then, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations branch has been investigating. Working with Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration, agents and lawyers conducted the legal steps necessary to return the seals to Korea.

Close-up of carved seal with tortoise handle and attached cord (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
The royal seal of King Hyeonjong is thought to have been carved around 1651. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

“Throughout the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War, many of our cultural assets have been lost,” said an official at Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. “The restoration of the Royal Seal of Queen Munjeong and the Royal Seal of King Hyeonjong is of great significance.”

Since 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has helped return more than 8,000 priceless objects to more than 30 countries. That includes dinosaur bones to Mongolia, paintings to European countries, pottery to Peru and a mummy’s hand to Egypt.

Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the theft and trafficking of a country’s national treasures is one of the oldest forms of organized transnational crime. He said ICE was proud to return the royal seals to the people of Korea.

“While we recognize that cultural property, art and antiquities are often assigned a dollar value in the marketplace, the cultural and symbolic worth of these Korean treasures far surpasses any monetary value to the people of Korea.”

People will now see the Seals of the King and Queen at the National Palace Museum of Korea, in central Seoul.