Wed, Feb 13, 2008 - Page 1 News List

S Korean torched historical site over old dispute: police

AFP , SEOUL

An elderly man has confessed to torching South Korea's most treasured historical landmark over a decade-old land dispute, police said yesterday.

Riot police were deployed to guard other historic sites in Seoul amid widespread anger and grief at the destruction of Namdaemun gate, a 600-year-old building in the heart of the capital.

Authorities came under fierce attack for failing to safeguard the building or to tackle the Sunday night fire effectively.

"The suspect has confessed all of his criminal acts to police," said Kim Yong-su, captain of Namdaemun police station, announcing the arrest on Monday evening of a 69-year-old man identified only as Chae.

Chae had been arrested in 2006 for trying to start a fire at the city's Changgyeong palace over the same grievance. He was fined and given a suspended prison sentence, Kim told a press conference.

Chae was angry at insufficient compensation following the compulsory purchase of his home a decade ago. He chose Namdaemun gate for his attack because it was poorly guarded, senior city detective Nam Hyun-woo said.

Nam said Chae had at one time considered launching a terror attack on mass transit systems, but abandoned the plan for fear of causing human casualties.

The gate -- a pagoda-style two-story wooden building on a stone base -- was built in 1398.

Newspapers and residents noted that it survived Japanese invasions and occupation and the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.

"But it was ruined in six hours due to our lack of care and attention," the JoongAng Ilbo said in an editorial.

Kim said Chae used a ladder to climb to the second floor and ignited paint thinner that he sprayed on the floor.

"The suspect is confessing that he committed the crime out of complaints about the unfair treatment against him," he said.

In addition to the compensation complaint, Chae believed his 13 million won (US$13,700) fine for the 2006 arson attempt was unfair.

Chae's family apologized to the nation.

"My dad has had a deep grudge about compensation, often talking about `bad guys' in his sleep. But it was too much ... to burn the nation's assets," his daughter said.

Yoo Hong-joon, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, offered his resignation to take responsibility, a presidential spokesman said.

Local authorities were denounced for posting no night-time guard at Namdaemun and for not installing a sprinkler system.

Firefighters were criticized for failing quickly to chop into the roof to tackle the seat of the fire, with the Korea Times blasting them for "amateurism."

But some firemen in turn said cultural officials had initially urged them not to damage the structure excessively.

The landmark, surrounded by modern office buildings, was the southern gate in the walls that surrounded Seoul during the Chosun Dynasty of 1392 to 1910.

The Cultural Heritage Administration forecast that reconstruction would take two to three years and cost some 20 billion won.

But the Chosun Ilbo said that while the original gate was a witness to history, the new gate "will be a 21st century structure that merely looks like the original."

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