South Korean Gate Destroyed in Fire
Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press
The collapse of Sungnye Gate, a 600-year-old landmark designated a top national treasure, shocked the country.
By CHOE SANG-HUN
Published: February 12, 2008
SEOUL, South Korea — The destruction in a fire of the 600-year-old southern gate to what was once the walled city of Seoul, a landmark that survived foreign invasions and wars to be designated South Korea’s top national treasure, has shocked the nation.
A 69-year-old man suspected of setting the fire was arrested Monday night on Kanghwa Island, west of Seoul, The Associated Press reported the police as saying. The man was identified only by his family name, Chae.
The suspect “has confessed his crime,” said Kim Young-soo, chief at a police station handling the case in Seoul, The Associated Press said. The police have a letter from the suspect complaining about a land dispute with a development company, Mr. Kim was quoted as saying, adding that the suspect maintains he did not get enough compensation from the developer for his land in Kyonggi Province near Seoul.
Mr. Kim said the man had been charged in 2006 with setting fire to the Changgyeong Palace in Seoul, which caused $4,230 in damage.
“The Republic of Korea could not even defend its national treasure No. 1!” one front-page newspaper headline lamented, using South Korea’s formal name.
The fire destroyed Sungnyemun, better known to Koreans and foreign tourists as Namdaemun, or Great South Gate. “With this fire, our national pride was burned down as well,” said Lee Kyung-sook, top aide to President-elect Lee Myung-bak, who rushed to the scene of the blaze on Monday.
Namdaemun, made of wood and stone with a two-tiered, pagoda-shaped tiled roof, was completed in 1398 and served as the main southern entrance to Seoul, which was then a walled city. It was the oldest wooden structure in Seoul, an iconic reminder of old Korea in this modern Asian city, the capital of South Korea, and a major tourist attraction. The site is surrounded by a bustling commercial district. Lately, homeless people had sought shelter there.
The gate survived the Chinese and Japanese invasions that devastated the city. It was repaired several times, most recently after the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. When the South Korean government cataloged its national treasures in 1962, it gave the gate the No. 1 ranking.
Some historians opposed that designation because Japanese invasion forces had passed through it in the late 16th century to destroy Seoul.
The fire was first reported Sunday evening. By late Sunday night, firefighters said they believed that they had contained it. But the fire roared out of control again after midnight and finally destroyed the structure, despite the efforts of more than 360 firefighters.
Cheon Ho-seon, a spokesman for President Roh Moo-hyun, called the loss “an utterly unfortunate and unspeakably deplorable incident.”
“The gate has been our representative cultural asset that has been with us for 600 years,” Mr. Cheon said in a regular news briefing. “All Koreans were shocked and hurt when they saw the gate crumbling in flames.”
The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take three years and $21 million to rebuild the structure.
Namdaemun succumbed to the very thing it was designed to fight off, according to Korean legend: fire. Korean kings chose the site in the belief that the gate would protect the capital from the fiery spirit of a mountain south of Seoul, historians say.