A LaGrange College Professor assisted law enforcement in the investigation of a stolen historic Korean artifact.
“It’s the result of having done a lot of work on that time period,” said Joshua Van Lieu, LaGrange College assistant professor of history. “It was kind of second nature for me to do it because I had already done a lot of work in that area.”
According to Van Lieu, the artifact is a metal plate that was used to print currency in Korea during the late 1800s. The plate was said to be taken by a U.S. Marine during the 1950s Korean War, and brought back to the United States. After he died, one of his descendants decided to auction off some of his things, which included the plate.
The plate was put up for auction by the Midwest Auction Galleries in Michigan and the gallery owner was contacted by the Korean Embassy to inform him that the plate was likely stolen during the war and, if sold, it could be a violation of the National Stolen Property Act, according to the complaint.
Despite the information, the plate was bought by Won Youn, who lived in Flushing at the time, for $35,000 in April 2010. Initially, no one knew who the buyer was, but thanks to Van Lieu, the buyer was able to be located.
Due to his extensive background in Korean and Asian history, Van Lieu was contacted by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the summer of 2012 to write up a historical background of the plate, which was made in the early 1890s, a period that Van Lieu’s research was focused on.
In his statement to ICE he stated: “The plate is historically and culturally significant not only because of its place in the modern transformation of the Korean monetary system but also because it is a tangible artifact of the extremely difficult socio-cultural transformations of the 19th and 20th century Korean society that included 30 years of Japanese occupation, the devastation of the Korean War, the extreme poverty of the immediate postwar period and the emergence of the now-vibrant democracy and powerful economy of Contemporary South Korea.”
Van Lieu continued to research the plate and found a video on YouTube of a man holding and boasting about the priceless plate in Flushing, Queens.
“All I did was type in ‘Korean’ on YouTube and I found the video within minutes,” said Van Lieu. “I was awfully surprised because it seemed awfully imprudent for him to advertise this online. I was surprised he was so public about it.”
In a translation of the Korean speaker Youn’s YouTube video, Van Lieu, who is fluent in Korean, said that Youn noted that the artifact was taken from Toksu Palace by an American Marine soldier in 1951. Van Lieu led authorities to the video and Youn was arrested on Jan. 9 on federal charges of possessing and transporting stolen goods and is now in a federal detention center in Detroit.
Some of Van Lieu’s background includes a doctorate in Korean history from the University of Washington and he has researched Korean History for more than 10 years. He has studied Korean and classical Chinese and primary source material produced by the Korean government from the 1880s to the early 1990s.
He currently teaches undergraduate courses in East Asian and world history, serves as director of the LaGrange College Asian studies minor, and is assistant editor and book review editor of The Journal of Korean Studies.