SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea celebrated the return of nearly 300 royal books looted by French soldiers in the 19th century with solemn ceremonies Saturday bringing alive the color and pageantry of a bygone royal age.
Bearers dressed in bright red costumes of the Joseon Dynasty carried a palanquin containing some of the books to central Seoul's Gyeongbok Palace to the piercing sound of traditional horns and gongs.
An official took the books wrapped in red cloth and placed them near an alter with another set for a Confucian enshrinement ceremony carried out in a square on the palace grounds complete with offerings of food, incense and drink. A report of the books' return was read aloud to surrounding spirits.
"It is very meaningful that valuable cultural assets of our nation and the world forcefully taken away 145 years ago in 1866 have been returned to us today through peaceful negotiation," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, dressed in traditional Korean clothing, told dignitaries.
The books, which number 297 in total, detail protocol for royal funerals, weddings and other ceremonies during the dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1392 to 1910.
French troops raided a royal library on an island off the west coast of the Korean peninsula and took away hundreds of manuscripts. They burned 5,000 more.
France agreed last year to allow the books to return to South Korea on a renewable lease basis, the culmination of about 20 years of negotiations.
The lease arrangement is because French law only allows cultural assets to be taken out of the country temporarily. South Korea's Culture Ministry, however, has described the deal as a "virtual return."
The first 75 volumes returned to South Korea in April, with the remainder coming in three separate shipments. The last arrived in late May.
Saturday's ceremony came one day after South Korea welcomed the coming into effect Friday of an agreement with Japan for the return of 1,205 Joseon-era royal books and documents taken there during Tokyo's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945.
South Korea and Japan signed an agreement covering the return in November last year. That followed a pledge Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made in August on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of the peninsula.
South Korea expects that "working-level consultations between the two countries will move forward smoothly to realize an early transfer" of the books, Seoul's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday.
Japan returned a total of 1,432 items of cultural assets to South Korea in 1965 when the two sides normalized their diplomatic relations.
The Korean peninsula has been divided since Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, with rival governments in the north and south.
Globally, there are numerous disputes over the return of cultural assets looted during wartime, seized by colonial powers or taken away by scholars and diplomats.
A long-running one involves the Elgin Marbles and housed in the British Museum. Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, removed the sculptures in the early 1800s while Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Greece has repeatedly called for their return.
Associated Press reporter So Yeon Kwon and Associated Press Television News staffers Park Bong Hon and Young Rim Cha contributed to this report.