Tue, Feb 12, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Fire destroys S Korean national treasure



An overnight fire left one of Seoul's great landmarks in ruins yesterday, destroying the centuries-old wooden structure atop the Namdaemun gate that was deemed South Korea's No. 1 national treasure. Officials said they suspected arson.

The fire broke out on Sunday night at the 610-year-old gate that once formed part of a wall that encircled the capital. The wooden structure above the stone gate later collapsed as firefighters tried to put out the blaze, officials said.

Lee Sang-joon, an official at the National Emergency Management Agency, said arson was suspected. However, police said it was too early to conclude what was to blame and that they would launch a joint inspection of the fire site with other officials.

"We should investigate by considering all possibilities," said Kim Young-soo, head of the central Seoul police station handling the case.

Police analyzed the tapes from four closed-circuit TV cameras installed near the fire site but none of them showed any suspects, Kim said.

Firefighters found two disposable lighters at the spot where they believed the fire broke out, indicating it may have been arson, Yonhap news agency said, citing fire official Oh Yong-kyu.

Oh could not be reached for comment at his office, and his cell phone was switched off.

Some 360 firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control, Lee said, adding that no one was injured.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the fire scene early yesterday, saying he deplored the destruction of Namdaemun, the namesake of Seoul's central district and a major tourist attraction.

"People's hearts will ache," Lee told officials as he conducted a briefing.

The two-tiered wooden structure was renovated in the 1960s, when it was declared South Korea's top national treasure, and again in 2005. The government opened the gate, officially known as Sungnyemun, to the public in 2006 for the first time in nearly a century.

The gate -- whose wooden plaque reads "The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies" in Chinese characters -- had been off-limits to the public since Japanese colonial authorities built an electric tramway near the gate in 1907. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take at least three years and some 20 billion won (US$21 million) to fully restore the gate.

"There is no problem in restoring the gate," Kim Tae-young, an administration official said, adding that the administration has detailed plans after measuring the gate in 2006.

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