One of nine seals returned to South Korea. Photo courtesy ICE.

HSI returns 9 ancient artifacts to South Korea
April 27, 2014

WASHINGTON —More than six decades after being removed during the Korean War, nine royal seals of the Korean Empire and Joseon Dynasty were repatriated Friday to Seoul, South Korea, by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

HSI San Diego special agents seized the cultural artifacts in November 2013 as part of a joint investigation with HSI Attaché Seoul. The South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) assisted with the investigation.

The seals were turned over to HSI San Diego special agents in November 2013 by the family of a deceased Marine lieutenant, who had served in the Korean War. The lieutenant found the seals in 1950 in a ditch near the Deoksugung Palace, which had been ransacked by Chinese and North Korean soldiers.

In September 2013, a Washington, D.C.-based antiquities expert contacted HSI Washington special agents to say that a man residing in Escondido, Calif., had contacted them to see if the seals were valuable. HSI Washington forwarded photographs of the seals to an antiquities expert at HSI Attaché Seoul, who provided the photographs to the CHA. The CHA subsequently determined that the seals appeared to be official seals of the Joseon Dynasty.

In October 2013, the CHA and the SPO International Cooperation Center (ICC) requested HSI’s assistance in recovering the seals.

HSI Attaché Seoul asked HSI San Diego to locate and recover the cultural property, which was illegally exported into the United States. Subsequently, the family voluntarily turned over the seals to HSI for return to South Korea.

The nine seals include three national seals of the Korean Empire, one royal seal of the Korean Empire and five signets of the Joseon Royal Court of the Joseon Dynasty. The Korean Empire (1897-1910) succeeded the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

The Korean government makes two main types of seals – national and royal seals. National seals are made for practical uses, mostly to stamp official government documents. Royal seals commemorate royal rituals. Among the seals seized were Hwangjejibo (Seal of Emperor), the national seal made upon an establishment of the Korean Empire in 1897, and Sugangtaehwangjebo (Royal Seal of ex-Emperor Sugang), the royal seal carved to commemorate the 1907 royal ritual. The government of the Korean Empire used the Yuseojibo (Seal of Yuseo) and Junmyeongjibo (Seal of Junmyeong) for official purposes such as appointing government officials. Five other signets were used to stamp on books or paintings in the Joseon Royal Court.

The emperor’s seal is classified as a national treasure by South Korea.