Seoul - South Korea has decided to return one of two ancient Buddha statues that were stolen by Korean thieves in Japan three years ago, the prosecutor general's office said Wednesday.
Although Japan had demanded the return of both Korean-made statues, the prosecutor said the second likeness would remain in South Korea pending the resolution of a dispute over its original ownership.
The argument over the fate of the statues, which were stolen from different shrines on the Japanese island of Tsushima in 2012, is a reflection of the troubled nature of Japan and South Korea's historic ties.
Four people were arrested in South Korea in 2013 over the original theft, after they tried to sell the statues which were then confiscated by the authorities.
Japan requested the statues' swift return, but a South Korean District Court blocked their repatriation on suspicion that they might have been stolen from Korea centuries ago by Japanese pirates.
In its decision on Wednesday, the prosecutor's office said there was no evidence that the one eighth-century statue had ever been illegally transferred to Japan, and underlined that no claims for its ownership had been made in South Korea.
"In accordance with the Criminal Procedure Law, the statue will be returned to the original owner in Japan", the office said in a press statement.
The other 14th century statue, however, is claimed by a Buddhist temple in the south-western city of Seosan, which says it was dedicated to the temple in 1330 but then plundered by Japanese pirates sometime before 1520.
"There is an ongoing legal dispute over its ownership and therefore, no decision has been made as to whether to return it", the prosecutor said.
The fact that even one of the statues will be returned prompted a storm of criticism on some Korean social media networks, where the decision was pilloried as a "betrayal" and "pro-Japanese".