SOUTH KOREA’S GREAT SOUTH GATE, a 600-year-old landmark that had weathered invasions and war to become the icon of the nation’s capital, burned to its foundation last night.
The gate, known commonly as Namdaemun but officially named Sungnyemun, was at the center of a bustling commercial district and near one of Seoul’s most famous open-air markets. The cause of the fire is still being investigated, though the Korean media most recently reported that authorities are focusing on the possibility of arson. Two lighters were found on the scene.
News sources and bloggers in Korea report that the feeling in Seoul is one of deep loss and outrage – the word “heartsick” has come up more than once. Having seen and been awed by Namdaemun many times during my stay in Korea, I feel pangs of sadness myself.
Echoing the words of The Marmot, who has posted a beautiful photo memorial to Sungnyemun, though the gate may be rebuilt, the face of Seoul has been forever profoundly changed.
UPDATE: Yonhap news reports that police have arrested and are investigating 70-year-old Chae Mo as the sole arson suspect. Eyewitnesses have said that a man around age 60 matching Chae’s appearance climbed a ladder up into the gate moments before the fire started. Authorities suspect that if the cause of the Namdaemun fire was indeed arson, whoever is responsible was also behind the arson incident at Ch’anggyeong palace two years ago. (Link, in Korean)
UPDATE: Via The Marmot, Chae has apparently admitted to setting Sungnyemun alight – saying it was motivated by a personal land dispute issue – and has apologized to both the Korean people and his family. Words fail me.
Photo: the face of Korea collapses, by hojusaram.