Korea’s #1 National Treasure Burns

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.

An article by Choe Sang-Hun for the IHT tells more about the fire and the gate’s historical significance, and a photoset by pwalk offers stunning images from the scene.

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.


3 Responses to “Korea’s #1 National Treasure Burns”

  1. 1 Kango Suz February 13, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Wow. That’s is absolutely heart rending. Why would anyone do such a thing? I don’t understand what it is that drives people to such acts of selfishness. Land is only land and doesn’t belong to anyone for very long!

  2. 2 AZell February 15, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Really awful. Amazing how easily we resort to our individual frustrations and desires over national concerns and aspirations. Additionally, ironic how it seems so difficult for one person to make a positive global impact but one person can single-handedly destroy a nation’s livelihood with two lighters…

  3. 3 JJ February 20, 2008 at 12:28 am

    I am sad……

    Every time I came back from the army or from Tae-goo where my all relatives live, I could see the gate. That meant a lot.
    On the day I finished my military service, I passed the gate again and I promised myself that my life will be just fine and strong like the gate. Now..what? it’s gone….maybe I should keep my memory only in my heart.

    Hey Ben, my friend,
    Did you know that yesterday was the 5th anniversary of Tae-goo subway tragic incident? about 200 people dead and 150 people got hurt. I could see text messeges that dead people sent to their friends and family at the last moment of their life. I was so sad all day today and prayed that’s never gonna happen again.

    http://illata.egloos.com/1431942 <-it’s Korean though.

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