South Korea’s Top Cultural Treasure Destroyed by Fire

February 12, 2008

South Koreans were saddened and stunned by a blaze that destroyed the country’s top cultural treasure, as police sought to determine whether arson was responsible.

The fire broke out Sunday night in the wooden structure atop the 610-year-old Namdaemun gate, which once formed part of a wall that encircled the capital.

The structure collapsed as 360 firefighters attempted to put the blaze under control, officials said. The gate’s large stone base remained intact.

The cause of the fire remained unclear but arson was suspected, said Lee Sang-joon, an official at the National Emergency Management Agency.

Police launched a joint inspection of the site with other officials. They analyzed the tapes from four closed-circuit TV cameras installed in the area but none showed any suspects, said Kim Young-soo, head of the central Seoul police station handling the case.

Firefighters found two disposable lighters at the spot where they believed the fire broke out, indicting it may have been arson, Yonhap news agency said, citing fire official Oh Yong-kyu. Oh could not be reached for comment.

Investigator Kim Kyong-hwan said it would take some time to determine the cause, noting that great care would be taken to ensure the site is not damaged further.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the fire scene early Monday, saying he deplored the destruction of Namdaemun, the namesake of Seoul’s central district and a major tourist attraction.

“People’s hearts will ache,” Lee told officials as he received a briefing.

Hundreds of South Koreans gathered near the badly charred structure Monday night, as several dozen police and workers stood by.

“My heart is burning,” Lee Il-soo, a 56-year-old man who runs a small business, said as he fought back tears. He said the fire destroyed the 610-year-old pride of South Korea.

Kim Ok-ja, a 40-year-old public servant, said she could not sleep Sunday night after hearing of the fire because her heart was broken.

“I came here immediately after finishing work because my heart aches so much,” she said after offering a white flower, a traditional symbol of grieving. She accused the government of poor preservation of the country’s cultural heritage.

The two-tiered wooden structure was renovated in the 1960s, when it was declared South Korea’s top national treasure. The government built a plaza around the gate, officially known as Sungnyemun, in 2005 and opened it to the public the following year for the first time in nearly a century.

The gate — with a wooden plaque reading, “The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies” in Chinese characters — had been off-limits to the public since Japanese colonial authorities built a nearby electric tramway in 1907. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula in 1910-45.

The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take at least three years and some $21 million to fully restore the gate.

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