English Chinese Japanese Arabic Spanish
Home National Society
2008/02/11 08:12 KST
(LEAD) Centuries-old gate collapses in fire

   SEOUL, Feb. 11 (Yonhap) -- A fire engulfed a six-century-old gate in the heart of Seoul late Sunday, with police suspecting it was caused by arson.

The wooden structure on the top of the stone gate was burned down several hours after it caught fire late Sunday. The blaze appeared to be under control at one point, but it flared up again a few minutes later, spreading quickly as firefighters tried to salvage what they could.

   The landmark, officially called Sungnyemun, or "gate of exalted ceremonies," was the southern gate of the walls that surrounded Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It currently serves as a gateway to Namdaemun market, a traditional market that has been operating for centuries.

   Construction of the gate began in 1395 and was finished in 1398 during the reign of King Taejo, who founded the Joseon Dynasty. The structure was renovated several times, most recently in 1962. The oldest wooden structure in Seoul, the gate was designated a National Treasure in 1962.

   Police officials are still trying to find the cause of the fire, but believe it was arson
A taxi driver who reported the fire told police investigators that he saw a man in his 50s go up the stairs to the gate shortly before the blaze started.

   The loss of the national treasure is expected to lead to severe criticism of the Cultural Heritage Administration, the government office in charge of maintaining cultural and historical artifacts, including national treasures.

   Firefighters said there were only eight fire extinguishers at the six-century gate. The incident comes less than three years after the country lost to fire one of its oldest Buddhist temples, Naksan Temple, along with the temple's bronze bell, also a National Treasure, in April 2005.

   Effort to restore the 1,300-year old temple continues and is expected to cost over 10 billion won (US$10 million).