Fire destroys centuries-old Seoul gate dubbed SKorea’s top national treasure

By Kwang-Tae Kim

SEOUL, South Korea – An overnight fire destroyed a 610-year-old landmark that was considered the top national treasure, officials said Monday. Police said the cause of the blaze was unclear but officials said arson was suspected.

The fire broke out Sunday night and burned down the wooden structure at the top of the Namdaemun gate that once formed part of a wall that encircled the South Korean capital.

Some 360 firefighters fought to bring the blaze under control, according to Lee Sang-joon, an official with the National Emergency Management Agency. No one was injured, he said.

Lee said arson was suspected in the blaze. However, Kim Young-soo, the head of a police station in central Seoul handling the case, told a televised news conference said it was too early to make that conclusion.

Firefighters found two disposable lighters at the spot where they believed the fire broke out, indicting 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.

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

President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the scene and deplored the destruction of Namdaemun, the namesake of Seoul’s central district and a major tourist attraction.

“People’s hearts will ache,” he told officials as he received a briefing.

The South Korean government opened the landmark gate, officially named Sungnyemun, to public in 2006 for first time in nearly a century.

The gate – carrying a plaque reading “The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies” in Chinese characters – had been off-limits to the public since Japanese colonial authorities built an electric tramway nearby in 1907. Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula in 1910-45.

The gate was renovated in the 1960s and again in 2005.

The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take at least three years to fully restore the gate and it would cost some $21 million.