Namdaemun burns…

March 11, 2008

On thelast night of the five day lunar new year holiday in South Korea a news alert appeared, “Namdaemun is smoking………..”


‘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.

Fire 1

Fire 2

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.

Pic 18

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…


Pictures by: Jo Yong-Hak, Cultural Heritage Admnistration,Lee Jae-Won, Kim Kyung-Hoon andKwak Sung-ho


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Very sad to see cultural hertiage to any country being destroyed. I would compare the arsonists to the taliban when they destroyed the buddha statues there.

Posted by Aditya | Report as abusive

I’m baffled that this didn’t even make the wire services and saddened that I’ll never get to see the real thing in person, as only a replica will be there, now.

Posted by Sino Sinohog | Report as abusive

Great article well written and very intriguing !!!! great pics as well.
by arul vigg.

Posted by arul vigg | Report as abusive

I dont mean to be rude here, but who really
cares about a building that burnt down in
another country?? I would understand if it
where in your country and it was looked at as
a landmark but it isnt so whats the big fuss????

Posted by True | Report as abusive

I understand some people like you don’t care other country’s disaster. How about you read article or see photos at the paper only in your city? I am sure Reuters is not a country’s news agency but a worldwide one. Just keep in mind that Reuters’ readers are all around the world like me.

Thanks for the impressive article and nice photos. I regret not taking many photos before Nadaemun was destroyed by arsonist.

Posted by Seong Joon Cho | Report as abusive

Hey Seong Joon Cho,
Personal views are very important, i have
another view on this, if they had made it
of brick instead of wood it wouldnt have
burnt down so quickly,

Posted by True | Report as abusive

Has anyone been to a bonfire night?? thats
the most impressive bonfire i have ever seen
what do you think Seong??

Posted by True | Report as abusive

[…] brings to mind the idiot who torched Namdaemun not so long ago. In my last post, I wrote about how little effort was put into restricting the […]

Posted by Haeinsa Security, and the Chinese Earthquake : | Report as abusive