|An official of the Cultural Heritage Administration explains about the two Korean Buddha statues smuggled into Korea from Japan during a press briefing held at the Daejeon Metropolitan Police Agency on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)|
BUSAN/DAEJEON ― Five South Korean men have been caught on charges of stealing two precious ancient Korean Buddha statues from Japan and trying to sell them in South Korea, police here said Tuesday.
Police said they have arrested a 69-year-old surnamed Kim and booked four others without physical detention for violating the cultural properties protection law.
The suspects are accused of stealing the two statues from the Kaijin shrine in Nagasaki Prefecture on Oct. 8. They, however, safely entered South Korea through the Busan port on the same day after the two cultural assets were mistakenly appraised as forged antiques, officers said.
One statue was created during the late Unified Silla period in the 8th century and the other during late Goryeo Kingdom in the 14th century, giving them values tantamount to those of national treasures, according to police officers.
“We allowed the entry of the statues only after appraisal inspections concluded the two were counterfeit antique items that were less than a century old,” customs authorities here said.
The suspects allegedly broke into the shrine through the roof after removing several roof tiles, officers said, adding that they are also suspected of stealing an ancient book from the shrine.
Police said they are pursuing three other members of the smuggling ring, including another suspect surnamed Kim.
The incident was belatedly known to the South Korean authorities about two months after it happened, according to police officers. The Japanese government reported a theft case and requested the two cultural assets be returned, they said.
The Cultural Heritage Administration, meanwhile, said it will look into the statues and investigate the possibility that they were looted from the Korean Peninsula.
Many cultural assets were looted by Japan during its 1910-45 colonization of Korea and Seoul has since been trying to reclaim the stolen items. (Yonhap News)