Lee Jin-man/AP
Namdaemun Gate, Seoul, South Korea

One Year After Fire, Namdaemun Gate Reopens But Emotions Still Smolder

February 13, 2009 10:32 AM
by Denis Cummings
The Namdaemun gate, South Korea’s No. 1 national treasure, was opened to the public Tuesday, one year after it was destroyed by arson.

Namdaemun Gate Opened to Public

The 600-year-old Namdaemun, or Sungnyemun, gate in Seoul is South Korea’s most cherished landmark. Last year, on Feb. 10, an arsonist set fire to the gate, destroying the two-tiered, wooden pagoda structure above its stone base and shocking the Korean people. “With our history of 5,000 years, the spirit of Koreans and part of ourselves was destroyed,” wrote JoongAng Ilbo, a daily paper.

The South Korea government, which was criticized for not protecting the structure well enough, embarked on a four-year, $20-million restoration of the gate, which uses about 3,000 pieces of wood salvaged from the blaze. On Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the fire, officials held a one-day exhibition at the gate.

“We will rebuild Sungnyemun for us all,” said Yi Kun-moo, head of South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration, to reporters Tuesday. “That I believe is the only way to heal the deep wound of the entire nation.“

The exhibition gave Koreans their first look at the gate since the fire. Many were still saddened by the state of the historic landmark. “I still feel like crying when I think about it. This gate is the post that holds South Koreans together,” said one woman to the Los Angeles Times.

Background: Namdaemun and the fire

Sungnyemun, better known as Namdaemun, served as the main gate through the walls surrounding Seoul from 1398 to the early 20th century, when the walls were demolished. The gate was left standing and was designated the country’s first national treasure in 1962.

On Feb. 10, 2008, 69-year-old Chae Jong-gi, angry with the government over a land deal, set fire to the gate with three bottles of paint thinner and two cigarette lighters. The fire burned for six hours as Seoul citizens looked on it horror and wept.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "Chae later told police that he chose Sungnyemun because of the lax security—motion detectors that were easy to evade." He was sentenced to 10 years in jail, and the Times quoted the judge as ruling that Chae, "inflicted unbearable agony on the people and damaged national pride."

Many Koreans were angered by the government’s lax security surrounding the gate and questioned the work of firefighters, who moderated their efforts in fear of destroying the structure with water. “It is our pride and joy, so I feel ashamed that this happened,” said historian Lee Song Gun to Time. “We should have protected it more.”

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