Namdaemun), which happens to be close to the equally infamous British Embassy. But when we visited the gate we were somewhat distracted by an increasingly urgent inability to find anywhere to eat, and then immediately afterwards by the discovery of so many homeless people setting up their cardboard beds in a nearby subway station.
What we didn't realise at the time is that in 2004 the Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak, relaxed visitor rules, allowing people direct access to the Gate. Previously, there was no such access and its position in the middle of a busy intersection - effectively serving as a traffic island - ensured its isolation. Now that we've won our legal battle against my Government, we should be travelling to Seoul again in the near future, and I'd hoped to visit the Gate again; as designated 'National Treasure Number 1' I don't feel I really did it justice last time.
It was after midnight when flicking through the television channels that it became apparent that it was burning down (photos). By this time, a minor fire which had begun over three hours earlier had been believed to have been brought under control on one occasion, and local news reports had already printed their stories concerning what smoke damage had occurred.
One conclusion I've drawn from my time in Korea is that the authorities in this country have a rather laissez-faire approach to safety, a subject which conversely is constantly obsessed about in most Western countries. Whether this environment contributed to the near destruction of the Gate is an open question, but Yonhap's contention that the wooden structure had only eight fire extinguishers does not seem entirely surprising. The news reports also suggested a reluctance to tackle the smouldering fire in the initial hours for fear of causing damage to the building, although fire-fighters have also said that water-proofing of the wood hampered their efforts. Still, one of the first things which struck me from the TV pictures was how half-hearted the efforts seemed, with the fire being tackled from a handful of pumps on the ground which clearly didn't encompass the Gate. A little later it looked like someone decided on a change of strategy, and fire-fighters went up on ladders as a deluge of water was directed on the structure from all possible angles. I guess they're going to be studying this one in fire-fighting school for a long time to come.
My initial horror at watching the destruction of Sungnyemun unfold on live TV was somewhat tempered by the revelation that while it's often passed-off as Seoul's oldest wooden structure dating back to 1395, it was all-but destroyed in the Korean War and rebuilt in 1962, so its heritage is perhaps more open to question than the tourist brochures would have us believe.
The fact that there are some suspicions that the fire was started deliberately raised the all-too-familiar mantra of please don't let it be a foreigner in our household, but fortunately it seems that the suspect is Korean, if indeed it doesn't transpire to be an electrical fault. It also comes as something of a revelation to think that National Treasure Number 1 wasn't protected by even one guard, so it will be interesting to see if there are any repercussions for the former Seoul Mayor who decided to open it up to public access; he's now the President-elect.