S. Korea Mourns Landmark Lost to Arson

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 14, 2008

SEOUL, Feb. 13 -- To appreciate the fury that has gripped South Korea since Sunday, imagine this:

The Alamo (or Independence Hall or the Old North Church) is set afire. There is live prime-time coverage on national television. Firefighters rush to the scene but dither for more than an hour before spraying any water. As the irreplaceable goes up in smoke, firemen argue jurisdictional niceties with government preservationists.

Police nab the perpetrator before the ashes are cold. He is a 69-year-old man with a record of arson. He admits setting the fire, telling police that the landmark was "easy to approach and poorly guarded."

That scenario played out here this week. But the torched structure was a massive 610-year-old wooden gate that was part of the fortress walls that once protected Seoul. Known as Namdaemun, which means Great South Gate, it was the country's single most important historical treasure.

"The soul of Korea burned overnight," said an editorial in the JoongAng Daily, a Seoul newspaper.

Namdaemun was officially proclaimed "National Treasure No. 1" in 1962. It was the oldest wooden structure in Seoul, having served as the city's ceremonial entrance since 1398. It survived Japanese occupation. It survived the Korean War. Here in what has been called the world's most wired society, it survived South Korea's obsession with all things new -- until last Sunday evening.

That's when Chae Jong-gi, a former fortuneteller who was angry about the amount of compensation the government had paid him for the loss of his house to a development project, showed up at Namdaemun.

He wore mountain-climbing clothes, he later told police, and he carried three bottles of paint thinner and two lighters. Two years earlier, he had been convicted of setting a small fire at another ancient Seoul landmark, Changgyeong Palace, but had been given a suspended sentence because of his age and his earnest apology at trial.

After his arrest Monday, Chae again apologized earnestly.

"No words are enough to express my apologies to my children and the people," he said.

Now that Namdaemun is rubble, many people are apologizing.

The mayor of Seoul has apologized. The head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, the agency responsible for the care of the ancient gate, has apologized and resigned -- although he admitted no specific wrongdoing.

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