Monday, February 11, 2008

National Treasure

When I was in Seoul last July we stayed near the famous 'South Gate' Sungnyemun (otherwise known as 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.

Another surprise was the nature of the television coverage, which seemed rather subdued. Had such an event unfolded back home Sky News would have been covering it from as many of the nearby buildings and streets as possible, while circling nearby with cameras in helicopters, but here the news channels we have access to seemed to content themselves with fixed singular positions covering the flames. It's especially curious given that Yonhap Television News (aka YTN) have a building right behind the gate, which you can see in the photo above, although by this morning it seems they'd finally thought to take some pictures from it.

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.


Anonymous said...

re: the 1962 rebuilding, it should be clarified:

"When the last major restoration took place in 1961, only a few parts of the structure were replaced, as most of the materials were reused and sustained."

Another Katrina-esqua screwup is that this happened before:

"After the fire at Naksan Temple in Gangwon Province in April 2005, which destroyed a bronze bell, Treasure No. 479, the administration has promoted a disaster prevention project at major wooden cultural heritages, setting up fire-fighting equipment at four temples so far. Sungnyemun was included in the project, but had not been equipped with such systems."

Also, they seemed to open up access in 2005 and not 2004.

Mike said...

Thanks for posting that. I've found the whole subject of the 1961/62 restoration confusing, with conflicting information on how much of the original materials were retained, with some sources implying that the answer was none. On balance, what I read suggested this was correct but perhaps the meaning was a little lost in translation, in which case, I stand corrected.

Given what happened to the Naksan Temple and now this, one hopes the authorities speed up whatever plans they had in order to ensure that other cultural treasures are not lost.

Anonymous said...


The "Phoenix Rising" symbol would be appropriate for this spectacular public event.

As you may know the Phoenix is a mythical bird that immolates itself in order to rise again from the ashes to become a more complex organism.

Demolishing symbols of traditional identity psychologically prepares for the new. Especially for shamanistic minded Koreans. The upcoming Korean administration seeks a newer, more dynamic Korea.

In other words, a fuller integration with the global management system. A sparkling Korea.

It's an incremental "project".

Anonymous said...

Another bit of news, they conducted a fire drill for the gate last April. But all the praticed was where to park the firetrucks during a fire.

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