Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The fire broke out Sunday night and burned down the wooden structure at the top of the 610-year-old gate, which once formed part of a wall that encircled the South Korean capital.
The fire collapse of Sungnye Gate better known to Koreans and foreign tourists as Namdaemun, or "Great South Gate" has litteraly stoned and shocked the country. "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. "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 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 the country, an iconic reminder of old Korea in this modern Asian city, the capital of South Korea, and a major tourist attraction. The gate survived many Chinese and Japanese invasions that devastated the city. It was repaired several times, most recently after the Korean War of 1950-53.
When the South Korean government catalogued 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 site is now surrounded by a bustling commercial district. The gate had lately been used as shelter by homeless people. 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 national capital from the fiery spirit of a mountain south of Seoul, historians say."
"The suspect has confessed all of his criminal acts to police," said Kim Yong-Su, captain of Namdaemun police station, announcing the arrest on Monday evening of a 69-year-old man identified only as Chae. Chae had been arrested in 2006 for trying to start a fire at the city's Changgyeong palace over the same grievance. He was fined and given a suspended prison sentence, Kim told a press conference.
Chae was angry at insufficient compensation following the compulsory purchase of his home a decade ago. He chose Namdaemun gate for his attack because it was poorly guarded, according to senior city detective Nam Hyun-Woo. Nam said Chae had at one time considered launching a terror attack on mass transit systems but abandoned the plan for fear of causing human casualties. Chae's family apologised to the nation.
"My dad has had a deep grudge about compensation, often talking about 'bad guys' in his sleep. But it was too much...to burn the nation's assets," his daughter said. Yoo Hong-Joon, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, offered his resignation to take responsibility. Local authorities were denounced for posting no night-time guard at Namdaemun and for not installing a sprinkler system. Firefighters were criticised for failing quickly to chop into the roof to tackle the seat of the fire, with the Korea Times blasting them for "amateurism".
Even North Korea's state-controlled media reported Tuesday about the fire. The report carried by the (North) Korean Central Broadcasting Station said a fire broke out on the two-tiered wooden roof of the structure on Sunday. It said despite efforts by firefighters, most of the the 610-year-old landmark collapsed early the next day. It said Namdaemun, built in 1398, is a source of pride and a valuable cultural legacy for all Koreans.
Though it now lies in ruins, the Sungnyemun will keep its status as the nation's no. 1 national treasure, the Chosun Ilbo writes (Click the title to access the report), and restoration is naturally considered by Korean authorities.
Namdaemun Gate before arson.
(text and agencies)