SEOUL, South Korea — The 600-year-old southern gate to what was once the walled city of Seoul, a landmark that survived foreign invasions and wars to be designated South Korea’s top national treasure, burned down Monday.
The collapse of Sungnye Gate — better known to Koreans and foreign tourists as Namdaemun, or “Great South Gate” — shocked the country. “The Republic of Korea could not even defend its national treasure No. 1!” one front-page newspaper headline lamented, using South Korea’s formal name.
Kim Young-soo, a district police chief, said investigators were looking into the possibility of arson. “With this fire, our national pride was burned down as well,” said Lee Kyung-sook, top aide to President-elect Lee Myung-bak, who rushed to the scene of the blaze Monday.
Namdaemun, made of wood and stone with a two-tiered, pagoda-shaped tiled roof, was completed in 1398 and served as the main southern entrance to Seoul, which was then a walled city. It was the oldest wooden structure in the country, an iconic reminder of old Korea in this modern Asian city, the capital of South Korea, and a major tourist attraction. The site is surrounded by a bustling commercial district, and had lately been used as shelter by homeless people.
The gate survived many Chinese and Japanese invasions that devastated the city. It was repaired several times, most recently after the Korean War of 1950-53. When the South Korean government cataloged its national treasures in 1962, it gave the gate the No.1 ranking.
Some historians opposed that designation because Japanese invasion forces had passed through it in the late 16th century to destroy Seoul.
The fire was first reported Sunday evening. By late Sunday night, firefighters believed they had contained it. But the flames reignited after midnight and finally destroyed the structure, despite the efforts of over 360 firefighters.
Cheon Ho-seon, spokesman for President Roh Moo-hyun, called the loss “an utterly unfortunate and unspeakably deplorable incident.”
“The gate has been our representative cultural asset that has been with us for 600 years,” Mr. Cheon said in a regular news briefing. “All Koreans were shocked and hurt when they saw the gate crumbling in flames.”
The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would spend three years and $21 million to rebuild the structure.
Namdaemun succumbed to the very thing it was designed to fight off, according to Korean legend: fire. Korean kings chose the site in the belief that the gate would protect the national capital from the fiery spirit of a mountain south of Seoul, historians say.