On Feb. 9, 1904, the 7,100 ton Russian cruiser Varyag and the 1,300 ton gunboat Korietz came under surprise attack by 14 Japanese warships while anchored at Jemulpo port in Incheon. It was the start of the Russo-Japanese war over control of Northeast Asia. Following an intense battle, the Russian warships chose to blow themselves up rather than be defeated by the overwhelming Japanese naval force.
The Japanese Navy recovered 14 artifacts from the Varyag, including its flag, artillery rounds, shells, gun and mast, and stored them at a location in Incheon. Now the Incheon Metropolitan City Museum, which acquired them after Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, is returning the flag to Russia.
The city of Incheon said Monday that it plans to hand over the Varyag's flag under an indefinitely renewable loan to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who will be attending the G20 Summit in Seoul on Nov. 11 and 12. The city said it has decided to return the flag in the form of a two-year renewable loan according to the law protecting cultural assets.
The law stipulates that even undesignated assets cannot be exported or transferred overseas other than for exhibition purposes and for no more than two years at the discretion of the Cultural Heritage Administration. Incheon Mayor Song Young-gil said, "This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Russia, and with the hosting of the G20 Summit, we decided on a de facto return of the flag and plan to discuss extending the loan period with academics and central government officials."
He added Russia has a lot of artifacts and manuscripts related to the Korean independence movement, and it would be a great help if those could also be in return provided for the purpose of exhibiting them here.
The Varyag's flag measures 257 cm by 200 cm and is widely cherished among Russians as a symbol of sacrifice and devotion to the homeland. Russian history texts teach that although the Varyag lost the battle, it honored the spirit of the Russian people.
In 1989, the Russian Navy named its latest cruiser Varyag and the warship has been traveling to Incheon on Feb. 9 each year since 1996 to pay tribute to the crew of the original vessel. In 2004, a memorial was built at a riverside park in Incheon honoring the sailors of the Varyag. Since 2000, Russia has been repeatedly calling for the return of the flag, and last year artifacts related to the Varyag were put on display in nine Russian cities including St. Petersburg.
Former CHA director Yoo Hong-joon said, "All artifacts shine brightest when they are in their rightful places. If Incheon returns the flag unconditionally, it will not only benefit bilateral relations but also set a milestone in terms of returning cultural assets to their owners."