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Police arrest suspect in Seoul historic gate fire

By ASHLEY ROWLAND AND HWANG HAE-RYM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 13, 2008

SEOUL — A 610-year-old landmark gate in downtown Seoul that survived wars and brutal foreign occupations to become the country’s highest-ranked national treasure burned down Sunday night in what police say was a likely arson case.

Police arrested a 70-year-old man, identified only by his family name Chae, Monday night on Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed police officer.

However, Yonhap quoted the officer as saying Chae was not the only suspect.

“Chae is one of several suspects,” the officer told the news agency.

Firefighters began arriving at Namdaemun — which means “Great South Gate” — at 8:50 p.m., about five minutes after the blaze first was reported, according to Jungbu District fire officials.

By the time they extinguished it six hours later, all that remained of the brightly-painted wood gate that originally marked an entrance to the city was its stone base.

“It’s the heart of Seoul, our pride, like the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers in New York, and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris,” college student Kim Wan-geun said Monday.

More than 300 firefighters and 95 fire trucks responded to the blaze, Jungbu officials said.

Investigators believe the fire started around 8:30 p.m., shortly before a taxi driver reported seeing a man in his 50s walk up the gate’s stairs carrying a shopping bag.

Yonhap News reported Monday afternoon that two cigarette lighters were found at the scene, although fire officials contacted by Stars and Stripes couldn’t verify the reports.

Thousands of people gathered around the base of the charred gate Monday, and many said they were shocked and angry at the arsonist, and at the South Korean government for not protecting the historic structure.

“Whoever is found guilty, he should be executed in front of Namdaemun,” said Ahn Myung-su, 70, who traveled 90 minutes by subway to visit the site Monday.

Her friend, 67-year-old Kim Jeong-suk, agreed.

“He deserves to be put to death by every single Korean throwing rocks and stones at him in front of the gate,” she said, crying. “His entire family should be killed, too.”

The gate, now surrounded by gleaming high rises and busy roads, was finished in 1399 to protect the city from tigers and invaders. It was rebuilt twice in the 1400s.

Namdaemun has since survived Japanese occupation, the Korean War and transformation within one of the world’s largest cities. Japanese colonizers closed the gate in 1907 to lay a railroad track through it.

South Korea restored it in the early 1960s, named it the country’s No. 1 treasure in 1962 and reopened it to the public in 2006. The gate is about a mile from U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, home of the U.S. military’s headquarters in South Korea.

Mark Monanhan, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Maryland, said South Koreans have a “psychological attachment” to Namdaemun because it’s part of their heritage.

“More than anything else, it’s symbolic. People who live in Korea, especially Seoul, have seen that day in and day out for 600 years,” he said.

Jeong Ho-young, 32, said he stayed up late Sunday night to watch television news coverage of the fire.

“Now I can understand exactly what the Americans felt when they saw the Twin Towers collapse,” he said.

By mid-afternoon, some South Koreans had laid flowers at the base of the gate. Many expressed disbelief and wondered why anyone would want to burn it down.

“If an arsonist did it, why did he want to do this to our greatest national treasure?” asked taxi driver Park Tae-in, 62.

Lee Jong-ho, who walked to Namdaemun from his nearby office at lunchtime to photograph the gate with his cell phone camera, said it should be restored.

“Every Korean is so sad and hurt,” he said. “It shouldn’t be abandoned because it is ours.”

Seoul City mayor Oh Se-hoon, who visited the site Monday, said he hopes to restore the gate in two years.

Park Sang-hyun, who sells shoes in a stall at the nearby Namdaemun Market, wonders what will happen to the traditional, thriving outdoor shopping area while the gate is rebuilt.

“Namdaemun is a must-see place for all foreign and local tourists. They come here to see the gate, and then move on to see the market,” Park said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


A crowd of onlookers clusters around the entrance to get a better look at the remains of the gate.
JIMMY NORRIS / S&S

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