Can Korea Protect Its Historical Sites?

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Ahn Young-joon / AP

Firefighters extinguish a fire at Namdaemun Gate, South Korea's No. 1 national treasure, in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 11, 2008.

Lee Song Gun, a historian and researcher at the National Institute of Korean History, was reduced to tears when she first heard that the city's beloved Namdaemun Gate had burned to rubble on Monday. "It is our pride and joy, so I feel ashamed that this happened," she says. "We should have protected it more."

Korea's No.1 National Treasure, a colorful two-tiered wooden pagoda atop a stone base in the heart of the nation's capital, was reportedly set ablaze by a disgruntled elderly former fortune teller, Chae Jong Gi, who told the authorities who arrested him late Monday that the government had short-changed him in a land compensation deal.

The incident has sparked a furor among average citizens, politicians and historical conservationists, who are demanding to know why the 610-year-old landmark was inadequately safeguarded, especially in light of the fact Korea has already lost more than 90 percent of its traditional non-religious architectural sites over the last century. "There's so little left, it is just heartrending," says Peter Bartholomew, president of the Korea branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and an expert on medieval Korean architecture.

It appears Chae was able to enter the premises of the ancient gate fairly easily. According to police, the 70-year-old climbed over a wall and used a ladder to enter the pavilion Sunday night, and set the blaze using three bottles of paint thinner just before 9 pm. Like many of Korea's historical buildings, the ancient gate was guarded only until the early evening. At night, a security camera was in place to keep out intruders, although homeless people have often huddled in around the structure. But the gate didn't have smoke detectors, or a sprinkler system to combat a fire in the event that one broke out.

Various government bodies are now squabbling over who is responsible for what is widely perceived as a botched firefighting job. Some local media reports are saying firefighters left the ancient gate early on, mistakenly believing the fire was under control. Other reports claimed the firefighters had focused their hoses on the structure's roof — which is all but waterproof — while the fire took hold below. The firefighters say they were told by the Cultural Heritage Administration, a body charged with the care of the nation's national treasures, to temper their aggression in fighting the fire, in order to make sure Seoul's oldest wooden structure was left intact. The administration is refuting this claim, saying it instructed firefighters to do whatever was necessary to get the fire under control. On Tuesday, the head of the Cultural heritage Administration, Yoo Hong Joon, tendered his resignation, saying he would "take responsibility" for the blaze.

Experts are baffled over why authorities failed to protect the historic building, given Korea's wooden and other historical landmarks have been easy targets for disgruntled citizens in recent years. Chae, the suspected arsonist, was convicted in 2006 for setting fire to Seoul's Changgyeong Palace, a world heritage site, but received an 18-month suspended sentence. Another historical landmark, an 18th-century command post at Suwon City's Hwasong Fortress, was also set ablaze in 2006. "There is nothing more flammable than traditional Asian buildings," says Bartholomew.

Critics of Seoul's lackadaisical approach to conservation point out that Japan, another country with many historical wooden structures, has numerous measures in place to protect its national treasures, including sophisticated sprinkler systems. But money is an issue: Korea's preservation efforts are underfunded and "not enough attended to," says David Mason, a professor of Korean Tourism at Kyung Hee University. And low overall rates of vandalism in Korea could contribute to a sense of complacency over protecting its cultural sites. "Teenagers aren't brought up to see vandalism as cool form of self expression," Mason says, "and adults would never damage their ancestors' legacy without cause."

Having failed to save it, Seoul is planning to restore the monument as quickly as possible: an official at the Cultural Heritage Administration told media it would take about three years and $21 million to rebuild the gate. President-elect Lee Myung Bak has proposed that citizens kick in money for the construction. But until the Namdaemun Gate is rebuilt, its blackened pedestal will remain a reminder of the fragility of Korea's architectural legacy — and a litmus test of just how serious the 5,000-year-old culture is about preserving its remaining historical landmarks.