‘I Will Donate This Entire Museum to Unified Korea’
Jung Ji-sup

Staff Reporter
The Chosun Ilbo

A 29-year-old man who lost his father had to deal with the burden of carrying on his family business all alone. He worked and toiled to make money by running pachinko parlors, Japanese pinball rooms, and izakayas, a type of Japanese drinking establishment, and as his father did, put all his wealth into an art museum dedicated to Korean ceramics and paintings.


This is the story of Korean-Japanese industrialist Chong Jo-mun (1918-1989), the founder of the Koryo Museum of Art, and his son Chong Hui-du, 55, the managing director of the museum. The elder Chong purchased 1,700 Korean cultural properties, including pottery from the Joseon and Goryeo periods, and paintings, which were taken out of Korea during the Japanese colonial period and scattered throughout Japan. In 1988 Chong built the Koryo Museum of Art in Kyoto with his remarkable collection of Korean art objects.


Now, 26 years later, the father and son will appear onscreen as a hero and his successor who saved the nation’s precious cultural assets. With the release slated for later this year, a preview of the documentary “Chong Jo-mun’s Porcelain Jar” (directed by Hwang Cheol-min), featuring the life of the Koryo Museum’s late founder, will be held by the Korean Cultural Center in Osaka on February 21. The museum’s managing director Chong Hui-du, a second-generation Korean-Japanese, will star as a lead character in the film.


When we met Chong at the museum on February 6, he said, “This documentary film will be very meaningful given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan. The film was produced with a production cost of 60 million won (approximately US$53,000) donated by 250 people from Korea and Japan, respectively, who love my father Chong Jo-mun and this museum.”


Chong Jo-mun went to Kyoto with his parents in his childhood and started out as a manual worker after dropping out of elementary school. When he was in his 30s he came across Joseon white porcelain and became enthralled by its beauty. Thus he began to pour his money into purchasing Korean cultural artifacts that had been taken out of the country and dispersed across Japan. He began publishing a quarterly journal named “Korean Culture in Japan” in 1969, which lasted for 13 years, with the support of prominent cultural figures, including novelist Ryotaro Shiba, Nobel Prize laureate in physics Hideki Yukawa, and Korean-Japanese novelist Kim Dal-su. The journal contributed to helping Koreans living in Japan feel proud of their identity and native culture.


In 1988, Chong established the Koryo Museum of Art, the only overseas institution entirely dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of Korean cultural assets, but unfortunately four months later he passed away. The one who witnessed Chong’s lifelong endeavor to save Korea’s cultural assets is his son and current managing director Chong Hui-du, the spitting image of his father. The younger Chong majored in archaeology at Nara University.


“The stone pagoda standing in the front yard of the museum was made by piecing together a pile of stones tucked in rice paddies near Kobe in the 1960s,” Chong said. “My father asked the landlord to sell him the rice paddies if he did not intend to assemble the stones to preserve them in their entirety. My father paid 20 million yen (valued at that time) for the land. Each of the objects housed in the museum has a remarkable story behind it. I am relieved but at the same time I feel regret. That’s because the artworks housed in this museum make up less than a mere one percent of Korean cultural properties scattered across Japan.”


Chong also did not forget to add an earnest request towards Japanese collectors of Korean cultural properties that were taken to Japan without reporting to the authorities. “We are not asking for an unconditional return of those objects. It is important to understand the current situation in order to appreciate and assess the value of the Korean cultural assets in Japan. There might be a way of sharing the value of these treasures,” he said.


Chong Jo-mun chose not to become a naturalized Japanese citizen; he lived as a “citizen of Joseon” without allegiance to either South Korea or North Korea. This demonstrates his yearning for unification. He stated in his will before his death: “Korea will be reunified 25 years from now. Donate our museum to our unified homeland.” The son said, “I haven’t yet been able to follow my father’s will, but I’m convinced that although it’s a bit late, my generation will witness the two Koreas united. So my father’s dream will come true.”

[February 10, 2015]