The Korea Herald


Temple that housed book on Hangeul launches Hangeul awareness group

By Choi Si-young

Published : Feb. 23, 2024 - 17:46

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The Ven. Beomjong, lead monk at Kwangheungsa in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. (Kwangheungsa) The Ven. Beomjong, lead monk at Kwangheungsa in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. (Kwangheungsa)

A South Korean Buddhist temple believed to have housed an old book annotating Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, has launched an awareness group to promote the “power of altruism” behind the writing system King Sejong the Great created in 1443.

“Going forward, we will undertake projects to promote the true spirit of Hunminjeongeum,” said the Ven. Beomjong, president of the Hunmin Spirit Globalization Association, referring to the original name for Hangeul at a launch ceremony Friday.

The lead monk at Kwangheungsa in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, the Ven. Beomjong likened the love King Sejong had for his illiterate subjects to the altruism that Buddhism teaches. King Sejong is recorded to have explained that the 28 letters he created aimed to enable the subjects to express their concerns. He pushed through staunch opposition from the elite, who didn’t see his way.

Kwangheungsa is thought to have housed Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon, one of the two extant copies of a book annotating why and how King Sejong and his scholars invented the writing system. The other copy, a National Treasure, also known as Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Kansongbon, is held by the Kansong Art Museum.

The Friday ceremony renewed attention on a decadelong campaign by cultural authorities to reclaim Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon, the better preserved of the two copies.

Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon Sangjubon, believed to have been smuggled out of Kwangheungsa, is currently in the hands of a Korean surnamed Bae. Since 2008, the collector has refused to hand it over to the government, citing his legitimate purchase from an antiquities dealer. The dealer, who has died, had claimed that Bae had stolen the book.

In 2011, the Supreme Court weighed in on the dispute, ruling the dealer as the rightful owner. In July 2019, in a separate case, the top court said the copy belonged to the Cultural Heritage Administration as the dealer had donated it to the government.

Bae was briefly jailed while standing trial over a charge brought by prosecutors accusing the collector of breaching the law protecting cultural heritage. A 10-year prison sentence given to Bae was overturned by the appeals court, which was then confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2014. There was no “definitive proof” of theft, according to the 2014 decision.

In May 2022, the CHA searched three spaces including Bae’s residence and office in a court-backed move that produced no progress. Bae maintains he has it, without elaborating on its whereabouts.

Bae once demanded 100 billion won ($75 million) for the return of the book. That was a “concession worth one-tenth of the book’s value,” according to him.