‘Nam’ means south, ‘Dae’ means great or grand and ‘Mun’ means gate – Great South Gate.Officially called Sungnyemun it was built in 1398 and had withstood invasions, Japan’s colonial occupation and was one of the few remaing historic structures in the capital leftstanding after the 1950-53 Korean War. It was an iconic symbol of national pride, the ‘face’ of the country, an intrinsic part of our culuturalheritage which children learn about in nursery rhymes.
Most South Koreans imagined it was just a small fire, maybecaused by an electrical short circuit. We thought that since firefighters were in attendancethe “small” fire would be quickly extinguished;it was not to be.
The firefightershesitated. Theycouldn’tdecide whethertomake a hole inthe roof to bringthe fire undercontrol or take other less drastic steps topreserve t our Number OneNational Treasure.Seoul-based duty photographer Jo Yong-hak was quickly on the scene.
By early Monday morning the massive stone and wood structure of Namdaemun was reduced to a charred hulkby the flames andthe sheer volume of water used to fight the blaze.
For South Koreans Namdaemun has always been a focal point. National campaigns are launched there, soldiers march past it onArmed Forces Day and demonstrators sometimes gather in front of it.
In order to shield Koreans from the terrible sight the authoritiesdecided to screen the ruins with a fence. Policemen stopped photographers from taking pictures as crowds gathered to mourn the destruction of their beloved icon.
The fire was set by 69-year-oldChae Jong-jiwho said he acted on impulse but maintained that it was an act ofrevenge against the government which he claimed hadtreated him unfairly. Police have said he was angry over compensation for a development project that claimed his property.
He said that he issorry to have destroyed somethingdear to so many people, but defiantly added: “Nobody got hurt. You can always restore cultural heritage.”
Yes, nobody was injured and wecan rebuild it, butSouth Koreansfeel a real sense of loss. Somehow this act of arsonnot only levelled 600 years of cultural heritage but it alsodealt a terrible blow tothespirit of our people.
Now whenever I have to go near the ruins I feelsadness formy 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. I should have made the time to take them to visit Namdaemunbefore it vanished…