A South Korean appeals court ruled Wednesday that a Buddha statue stolen from a Japanese temple in 2012 belongs to the temple, overturning a lower court ruling that had acknowledged a South Korean temple's ownership of it.
The Daejeon High Court, however, left the issue of returning the 14th-century statue to the Japanese temple to the South Korean government, which is currently in possession of it, calling for Seoul to take international norms into account.
The original 2017 ruling by the Daejeon District Court ordered the stolen statue from Kannonji, a temple on Japan's Tsushima Island, to be handed over to Buseok Temple in Seosan southwest of Seoul, leading to a worsening of Japan-South Korea ties.
The South Korean temple, which claims that the statue was looted by Japanese pirates hundreds of years ago, will appeal Wednesday's ruling to the Supreme Court, a lawyer representing the plaintiff said.
At a news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the court decision came "in line with the claim" by the Japanese temple, adding Tokyo will continue to work toward the statue's "early return" to its Japanese owner.
The appeals court said in the ruling that while "it is clear that the disputed Buddha statue was originally made at Buseok Temple in 1330," it is hard to say that the temple and the current Buseok Temple in Seosan are identical, making it difficult to uphold the latter temple's ownership.
The court also said the statue peacefully and openly stayed at the Japanese temple for more than 20 years before it was stolen by South Korean thieves in 2012, satisfying requirements for the temple to be recognized as its owner under Japan's Civil Code.
"It was a very fair ruling," said Sekko Tanaka, former head monk of Kannonji. "With the South Korean judiciary acknowledging for the first time that we are on the right side, we have been able to take a step forward."
The Daejeon District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in January 2017, concluding that Buseok Temple is the rightful owner of the statue, prompting the South Korean government to appeal the ruling.